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'Mistaken for Strangers': The National of Music Documentaries

30/06/2014 12:47 BST | Updated 29/08/2014 10:59 BST

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"What makes you think I'm enjoying being led to the flood?"

(The National, 'Runaway')

The National are the most rigorous, literary and intensely elegant of contemporary American bands, a seething equipoise of baritone potency, earnest oddness and dark, drifting lyricism. They have matured impeccably from the melancholy promise of The National (2001) and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003) to the jagged, Joy Division-brushed purism of Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007), then again to the refined heights of High Violet (2010) and Trouble Will Find Me (2013).

Their cryptic lyrics have waves of meaning and are steeped in a sort of enchanted realism: the slow show of empty flats, dusky swimming pools and lonely parties is the same province of short story virtuoso John Cheever, the "Chekhov of the suburbs" and a fellow fabulist of fractious relationships. Of all their songs, 'Pink Rabbits' is the masterpiece and the greatest break-up song of the century so far. If you don't know it, please listen to it immediately, then listen to it again, immediately.

As if The National couldn't be savvier, along comes Mistaken For Strangers, the most ingenious music film in years. Named after one of their songs, it is less about the band than the complexities of brotherhood, heightened when one is more famous than the other.

The National are composed of two pairs of brothers - Aaron and Bryce Dessner; Bryan and Scott Devendorf - plus frontman Matt Berninger. Matt also has a younger brother called Tom, a hugely likeable, slightly wayward amateur horror filmmaker redolent of a School of Rock-era Jack Black. When Tom gets a job as a roadie on The National's latest tour, he brings his camera with him and this lovely film is the roundabout, deceptively artful end product.

The camera becomes a symbol of creative rebellion against the dull subservience of merely being Matt's brother, an applauseless role that has defined Tom's life to date. Tom is often told to put the camera away by the testy tour manager when he should be doing something useful, like put out more towels. Where Tom is ramshackle, impulsive and inclined to have one beer too many, Matt is circumspect and disciplined: even his downtime has a curated minimalism, only seeming to clink a glass when it's with the elite likes of Werner Herzog or Emily Blunt, and there is a particularly emblematic moment where Tom is ushered out of a corridor so the band can pose for a photo with a certain Barack Obama.

Matt is a fascinating character: broadly supportive, serious (sometimes endearingly so, sometimes frustratingly so), particular, conscious of his image and capable of teasing Tom where it hurts. He is torn between inviting his brother in to his exclusive world and encouraging him to do his own thing, a dilemma explored in the recent, underrated HBO comedy Doll & Em: is it better to employ a loved one lower in the showbiz hierarchy, or not at all?

There are funny moments of fraternal bickering (Matt confiscates beers off Tom, scolds him for dropping cereal on the hotel bathroom floor, then again for bellowing at a celebrity neighbour). But even more interesting are the shards of psychological insight, especially those excised from Tom's interviews with his parents, two Cincinatti artisans (Mum's paintings are all over the walls, while Dad seems to be making something throughout his time on camera). Among the wry acknowledgements of Tom's childhood quirks, like his inability to finish anything, Mum concedes that she always thought Tom was the more talented son (cue a shot of his surrealist 'leg' cartoons) and Dad compares non-complainer Tom to the more fretful Matt.

There is also the comfort that Tom is not the only one cooling in Matt's shadow; there's an intriguing shimmer of narcissism when one of the Dessner twins bristles, just slightly, at being asked yet more questions about Matt rather than about himself.

During the final twenty minutes, Tom is at his most vulnerable. When Matt's wife Carin asks Tom if there are any romances on the horizon, Tom is defeatist. "I don't have the clothes, the dishes... I don't have anything." For all Matt and Carin's generosity, it can't be easy for poor Tom to live with such high-achievers (Carin is a former fiction editor of the New Yorker). Matt can come across as a bit stiff, a bit too emotionally blue-blazered, but he is genuinely, pragmatically protective of Tom and his advice has the aphoristic wisdom of his lyrics ("Lean towards the things that make you like yourself").

Of course, the jeopardy of the film not getting made is tempered by the fact that you're watching it, but this is just one of its many satisfying ironies. Despite his shambolic persona, Tom the director packs a hell of a lot into 75 minutes and, aside from everything else, there are some really accomplished sequences of the band on stage. We get the best of all worlds: an auteured concert film (in the vein of Martin Scorsese's Shine A Light or Shane Meadows' Made of Stone), with a deadpan, real-life absurdism unintimidated by rockumentary urtext This Is Spinal Tap and weighted with the timeless fraternal preoccupations of guilt, loyalty, tolerance and estrangement, like a hipster-generation East of Eden.

Smartest and freshest of all, though, is the film's self-awareness and even the most touching moments have a deliberate, tears-in-the-mirror vanity. In one of the film's best passages, Tom tells Matt that he filmed himself crying the night before, which makes Matt laugh affectionately: the very next scene is of Tom crying. You'd think the pathos would be blotched by the eczema of irony, with Tom as guilty of affected sadness as the "television version of a person with a broken heart" the band decry in 'Pink Rabbits'. But the moment is even more moving for it, and enhanced by Tom's realisation that he's never seen Matt cry. The film reverberates with these sorts of deft structural echoes and the audacious final sequence is, in itself, an apt metaphor for Tom and Matt's relationship, especially the triumphant final shot.

I don't know if Mistaken For Strangers is another of those documentaries, like Joaquin Phoenix's I'm Still Here or Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop, where there's more jiggery-pokery with the truth than meets the eye. But I couldn't care less, because this film is already so many things. It is a National song, an oblique, heartening raid on the inarticulate; like a National song, it is a John Cheever story, in this case an inverted 'Goodbye, My Brother'. It is a metaphor for Tom's life, a quest to rearrange the post-it notes of his National-shadowed existence into some coherent, independent order. But however you look at it, Mistaken for Strangers is the sweetest, funniest, most cleverly composed film about music of recent memory and one of the most original films about brotherhood ever, set to the billowing backcloth of the classiest band in the world. Catch it while you can.