Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Russians, Banjos, and Cinema Verite, oh my!

If you told me there was a documentary about young Russians with a passion for bluegrass trying to make their way in mid 90s Nashville available for free on hulu, I'd knock back whatever cocktail I'd been nursing and run home to watch it.

Unfortunately, there is such a documentary, and it doesn't quite merit that reaction.

The Ballad of Bering Strait is at its best when treating the absurdity of its subject head on, which, perhaps out of respect for the rotating cast of musicians, it rarely does. The following clip, in which Ilya Toshinsky performs before his music professors on the banjo, is one of the few times the documentary even comes close to acknowledging just how bizarre its subject is:

The rest of the film, unfortunately, feels more like a classed-up reality show that could be about any country act at all. It doesn't help that for whatever reason, the band (Bering Strait) tends toward unbearably bland country pop. Another clip that embodies the let down this film truly was is the final concert, recorded at the Grand Ole Opry itself. Here's their first song, typical of the rest of the stuff on their album:

Not a damn thing distinctive about that, anywhere. See the lead singer, the blonde one? At the beginning of the documentary she had waist length black hair. She shaved her head on a lark and only dyes it in preparation for this concert. Her father was a nuclear scientist who died prematurely because he was among the first to investigate the Chernobyl disaster. Absolutely nothing in her music bespeaks how interesting a person she must be. Maybe aping American top 40 style is marked enough for these people-- in which case the documentary would have done far better to focus more on them in the Russian environment, not the American. But wait, what's this?

(For the uninitiated, that was Porushka-poranya, a fairly traditional, well-known song.) Damn, how much more engaging was that?! The freeness in the vocals, the creativity of the instrumentation, the overall energy present on the stage-- blows that crap they were singing before out of the water, and I don't think I'm saying that just because I'm a fan of Russian folk music. People who make music like that might be interesting subjects for a documentary-- those Shania Twain wannabes earlier? Not so much.

Not to say that the film is entirely without merit- these are Russians, after all, and watching them wax philosophical from time to time proves amusing, and if you're at all interested in the inner workings of the country music biz this wouldn't be a waste of your time. The musicians themselves all speak scarily good English, but much of the Russian that is spoken goes untranslated, which might be frustrating for you non-Russophone viewers.

Overall, not the worst way to spend an hour and a half, but not nearly as quirky or entertaining or culturally thoughtful as it could've been.

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