Last night, Mistaken for Strangers, a film that’s sort of about the National and their tour for High Violet, but really turns into something else, debuted at the opening night of Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a funny year for the band — in June they’ll headline Barclays Center, and tonight they hobnobbed with Robert DeNiro, who came onstage before their documentary. In some ways their ascent has been an inevitable process, a slow-burning rise from empty Mercury Lounge shows to this, but it’s still sort of mind-boggling. Apparently DeNiro was a bit mind-boggled as well, since he said about seven words total before ceding control of the room to Jane Rosenthal, the festival’s co-founder.
Director Tom Berninger (the redhead pictured above), the younger brother of frontman Matt Berninger, originally planned to make a mockumentary. Functionally, it still begins that way. The initial premise is that Matt, the lone man outside of the band’s dual sets of brothers the Dessners and the Devendorfs, invites Tom to come on tour with the band as a roadie. True to the movie’s poster, in which Tom is floating but nearly submerged in a pool, he’s experiencing some Graduate-level inertia. He agrees enthusiastically, and it’s decided he’ll bring along a handheld camera and document everything.
Tom comes off as a would-be chronicler, filming each member doing ridiculous “entrance shots” and asking them questions he knows to be inane. He asks Aaron Dessner how fast he can play guitar. He asks bassist Scott Devendorf if he brings his wallet onstage with him. Matt is subjected to a whole slew of absurd inquiries about whether he gets sleepy onstage, or on just how famous he thinks he is.
One continuing thread is that of Tom’s roadie misadventures. During a radio interview, Matt describes Tom as a metalhead who would finds indie rock to be “pretentious bullshit,” and during the film Tom seems disappointed the National don’t live more of a cliched rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle on the road. At one point he tells drummer Bryan Devendorf he seems more “metal” than the rest of the band, which seems more “coffeehouse.” Cut to a shot of Devendorf and Tom “partying” on an empty tour bus–they’re playing air instruments, Tom’s bobbing his head maybe-drunkenly, cigarette hanging out of his mouth and muffling his words as he sings along to New Order’s “Age of Consent,” a decidedly un-metal song.
Like that moment, most of Tom’s roadie mistakes are played for laughs, even if they seem to be sort of serious, like losing a guest list for a Los Angeles show and stranding Matt’s in-laws and Werner Herzog outside the venue for 45 minutes. This stuff is the bridge to the more serious matters of the film: Tom and Matt’s relationship, particularly the notion of Tom struggling with living in his older brother’s shadow. As Tom’s incompetence causes repeated frustration for the band’s management, things come to a head, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing Matt lose it at him a few times. Even when he seems to have deserved it, the scenes have a rawness to them that’s parallel to the brutal self-revelation of many National lyrics.
The screening was followed by an after-party and a performance, and the odd assemblage of primarily older attendees at the Highline Ballroom read both as “a National concert” and “Tribeca opening night after-party.” A DJ played Blondie over contemporary beats while waitresses in glittery cocktail dresses doled out mini-burgers or ice-cream bars to the finely dressed masses. High profile magazine editors lurked. It felt somewhat like being inside a National song. Like, say, “Slow Show”: “Looking for somewhere to stand and stay/ I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away.”
At about 10:45, the band came onstage, excellently reprising their perennial dark-suited looks. Matt has acquired a pair of clear plastic glasses since I last saw them live. They spent the entirety of their 40ish minute set playing in front of a graphic logo for “Tribeca Film Festival” and below a mirrorball.
Half the set was devoted to standards–“Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Mr. November”–but the real draw, and the other purpose of this show, was the showcase of new material from their forthcoming May release Trouble Will Find Me. Singles may have been released these last few weeks, but this felt like the first event in the next month’s build-up to the new album. Logically, two of the new songs played tonight were those that were recently released: “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” The former has a good groove and is rendered pretty faithfully to its studio counterpart. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” is propelled by a prominent drum machine pulse that further highlights the band’s underlying New Wave influences.
At one point during the night Matt dedicated “I Should Live in Salt” to its inspiration, brother Tom. (It’s central lyric: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.”) Over the evening’s last song, “Terrible Love,” Matt did his usual and jumped into the crowd. He worked his way around the room, singing a verse from atop the bar, working his way over to his brother for the song’s cathartic ending. Matt put his arm around Tom and they screamed the last refrains together, their similar faces both red. You got the sense that they’d be alright.
Oh, Holy Night
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Sea of Love
I Should Live In Salt