I feel like I should start this review off with a disclaimer. The National is probably my favorite band still playing music and their second most recent album, High Violet, placed at number three on my top albums list. So yeah, I was probably already in the bag for this rock doc about their tour playing that album. But rock docs usually aren’t my thing, so it would take a special twist on the old formula for me to really get behind it.Luckily for me, that twist is right there from the beginning. This isn’t just a concert film, it’s a soul-searching movie about growing up in the shadow of a rock star, and about the creative struggles of a guy who’s down more than he’s not. It’s a movie about making itself, and it’s a triumph of the genre.
The National is a band of brothers, as the five main members are comprised of a duo of brother guitarists and a bassist and drummer who just happen to be twins. That leaves singer Matt Berninger as the only guy without a brother in the band. He does have a brother, though, Tom, who seems to have taken up being a younger brother as a full time job. Tom is not a fan of The National, he prefers the metal end of the spectrum and derides the band’s music as coffee house rock. That doesn’t stop him from joining the band on their European tour as a roadie who spends his free time making a documentary about the tour. Early on he tries to get all of the things we expect to be in a tour doc into the film: one on one interviews with all the band members and behind the scenes squabbles, though these are both filtered through his singular lens. See, Tom is a bit focused on his own relationship with his older brother, and the ways that Matt’s fame has twisted their already kind of distant relationship. Most of those interviews with the band members become a kind of therapy session as Tom either asks about times when Matt has been a jerk to them or questions why there isn’t as much crazy drug-fueled parties happening. It seems like Tom forgot which band he was following.
He’s also not a very good roadie, and the film chronicles his misadventures as he loses guests lists and forgets to get water bottles and towels together for the band before a show. This puts his relationship with his brother on even rockier ground. There’s not a whole lot of good times captured on record here as the film dispels the myth of the rock tour with the truth of overwhelming logistics and stress. Tom is unafraid to show us exactly how much he screws up and when he is fired once the group gets to New York it is not so much a surprise as it is inevitable. He’s not cut out to do this kind of thing and his first stop is to return to his parents house and ask them on camera what the difference is between him and his famous brother. He’s trying to figure himself out by contrasting himself against his wildly successful brother. Nobody is going to stand up to that kind of self-scrutiny. As Tom spirals further and further into himself we see him starting to edit the footage he captured throughout the tour. Here is where you’ll either lose patience with the film or get even more engrossed in his struggles with depression and creative consternation. Matt and his wife (who is also credited as an editor on the film) put Tom up in their daughter’s playroom to give him enough space physically and emotionally so he can create the film he needs to create. There are further struggles as Tom realizes exactly what the movie has to be about, and when he changes the post-it notes that serve as an outline of the film from a sprawl of multi-colored near-randomness into on straight line of red notes detailing all of his screw ups we begin to understand exactly how and why this movie is what it is. The film a fantastic work of self-realization which ends with the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen. It’s a powerful statement that signals a new phase in this man’s life and is inspiring to anybody who has ever had a creative bone in their body.
A final note on the the music, which, if this were a typical rock doc, would probably take up the majority of the review. The film saves it’s biggest music scene for last, a performance of “Terrible Love” in which Tom is serving a new role in the crew of the band and Matt goes out into the crowd and eventually into the lobby to use its echos as amplifiers of the line, “It takes an ocean not to break.” We’ve seen the ocean at this point in the film, and Tom has not been broken. The National provides the perfect backing to this kind of self-examination as their songs are full of people in similar situations to Tom, trying to find their way in a world that feels indifferent to them. There’s another part in the film where Tom goes into the studio with the band and hears them working on a song from their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me. It’s a song about the relationship between Tom and Matt called “I Should Live in Salt” which has lines like “Don’t make me read your mind/You should know me better than that” and it’s chorus “I should leave it alone but you’re not right”. Throughout the film we get Tom’s point of view on their brotherly relationship, or lack thereof. In the song we see Matt’s side, his recognition that they aren’t alike and his guilt over leaving Tom behind as he pursued his rock and roll career. It’s the film in four minutes and from the other point of view, and is must listen material for any fan of the movie.