- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

Geologists believe a strip of land once connected modern-day Russia to Alaska, where the Bering Strait is today.

It's not clear if humans ever walked across it, but a group of young Russian musicians who call themselves Bering Strait draw symbolic meaning from the theoretical land bridge between their mother country and America.

Bering Strait plays quintessentially American country-Western music, and it plays it well, spasibo very much.

"The Ballad of Bering Strait," a film by Nina Gilden Seavey, head of George Washington University's Documentary Center, follows the group from its arrival in Nashville, Tenn., to a performance at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium and finally to a warm-up gig for Trisha Yearwood at Wolf Trap.

The end of the story has yet to be written. Just this week, Bering Strait was up for a Grammy for best country instrumental performance. (It lost to the Dixie Chicks.)

"Ballad" opens at an elite conservatory in Moscow, with Bering Strait's Ilya Toshinsky, a handsome young student with impressive fingerpickin' skills, assaying "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on banjo.

Puzzled at first, the old Russkies, no doubt unaccustomed to the sounds of Appalachia, eventually start toe-tappin' and grinnin' to the classic Flatt & Scruggs tune.

It ain't Shostokovich but, hey the kid's got chops.

The seven members of Bering Strait came together in a town near Moscow called Obninsk in the early 1990s. The Iron Curtain was ripped to shreds, and tokens of Americanism jeans, rock 'n' roll and 10-gallon cowboy hats were hot commodities in the former Soviet Union.

A music teacher with a penchant for bluegrass corralled the group and schooled the musicians in the techniques and tones of American mountain music.

By chance, an American art dealer caught a Bering Strait gig at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow (how's that for internationalism?) and, impressed, hooked up the group with Tim DuBois, a Nashville producer.

That's the back story; Music Row, as Nashville's recording-industry sector is called, proves to be no land of milk and honey.

The musicians' manager, Mike Kinnamon, nearly goes broke trying to support them; they get bounced from label to label; a fire trashes an apartment where three of them live; and their work visa bars them from taking even fast-food jobs.

"Ballad" is a little fuzzy on the details at times: Why can't they play live gigs for cash? How do they afford occasional visits to Russia if they're so strapped?

There's also little treatment of interpersonal tension between band members, which there must have been. We don't get to see any warts, in other words. The band's fiddler, we learn in a postscript, left the band after the documentary was shot, but there's no hint of dissent in the film.

Plus, the band displays a kind of sniffiness a sense of entitlement that detracts from its otherwise heartening story.

The band mates hardly show any appreciation of their many benefactors, and they don't seem to realize how fortunate they are to have ample face time with a guy like Mr. DuBois.

Maybe they're plenty grateful, but if they are, the film (another extraordinary shot in the arm for them, come to think of it) fails to show us. If they aren't, I would be reluctant to root for them.

It would have been nice, too, if the filmmaker had explored whether the band was comfortable being packaged slickly by the Nashville machine. It was striking to hear the group play acoustically and then hear how the record sounds. The edge and purity and distinctiveness are gone; Bering Strait becomes basically indistinguishable from everything else on pop country radio.

Bering Strait might have a bright future, but it doesn't quite move me enough to make a Stoli toast. Smirnoff, maybe, but not Stoli. Not yet.


TITLE: "The Ballad of Bering Strait"

RATING: NR (Contains nothing objectionable)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Nina Gilden Seavey. Cinematography by Erich Roland. Edited by Jeff Consiglio.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes


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