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Tribeca Opening Night: ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ a Goofy, Touching Rock Doc

A screening of "Mistaken for Strangers" — about the rock group the National, directed by the brother of its frontman — opened the 12th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival

"Mistaken for Strangers," a touchingly hilarious documentary, made its world premiere Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, which organizers dedicated to the people of Boston.

"This movie is really a small, little low-fi thing," first-time director Tom Berninger told the audience before introducing the subject of his film, rock band the National.

The film is billed as a self-mockumentary and has touches of “This Is Spinal Tap” (Berninger even borrowed the “Spinal Tap” title font), but it’s really a fortunate mistake born out of a failed documentary.

Matt Berninger, lead singer of the National and Tom's brother, invites him on tour with the band to work as a roadie. Berninger joins up armed with a hand-held digital camera and a loose, ill-prepared idea to make a documentary about the Brooklyn band.

It may be "low-fi," but it was certainly a hit with the audience. It's impossible not to like this film, mainly because the hapless, schlubby Berninger is so easy to like. The film has zero pretense, and Berninger’s delivery is genuine and seemed to connect with the audience.

Before the film screened to a packed house of 912 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in downtown Manhattan, actor Richard Belzer took the stage to announce that the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs through April 28, would be dedicated to the people of Boston in the wake of the Marathon bombings.

“Tonight, we’re all Bostonians,” Belzer said. 

Festival founder Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, who launched the fest in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, welcomed the audience and introduced the film.

"At its core this movie is about family, friends and music," Rosenthal told the audience. "And what's more important than family, friends and music?"

Almost immediately, the film won over viewers; it seemed women in the audience developed a collective crush on Berninger ("Oh God, he's so cute" was overheard more than a few times).

The laughs rarely stopped. When they did, the film managed to balance the goofy hilarity with truthful, touching moments; Berninger occasionally turns the camera on himself in late-night, tear-filled, often drunk, confessions of self-doubt.

And you feel for him. As much as the guy tries, he just can't get things right. He forgets simple roadie tasks like having water and towels ready for the band. He loses the guest list (Werner Herzog has been waiting outside for 45 minutes?!). He drinks too much. He fails to show up; the band hits the road, only to realize two hours into the trip Berninger's not on the bus. Eventually, Berninger is fired.

But as quickly as the film slumps into sad territory, it snaps back to lighthearted foolish banter. Berninger's stammering questions are rarely focused and almost never have anything to do with music, the band or life on tour.

The questions — "Do you ever get sleepy on stage?" … "Do you ever have nightmares when you're sleeping on the bus?" and "Do you carry a wallet on stage when you play?" … "Exactly how famous do you think you are?" — left the crowd in stitches.

The questions themselves are innocently stupid and the reactions are priceless. Often Berninger just answers the questions himself, rambling on about his own life (he likes heavy metal, horror films and lives with his parents), leaving the band members silently frustrated and increasingly annoyed.

Before the screening, the clutch of celebrities took the red carpet including band members of the the National, Liza Minnelli, Paul Haggis, Ruben Blades and Josh Lucas.

Afterwards, the crowd slowly huffed up to the Highline Ballroom for an after-party concert by the National.

"Mistaken for Strangers" marks the second time Tribeca kicked off with a documentary and concert; in 2011, Elton John played after Cameron Crowe’s “The Union.”