‘The Russian Winter’: John Forté and the common languages of music and hardship
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Standing with his bandmates on an ice-encrusted platform somewhere in Siberia, as workers chip the ice off of the train wheels, Grammy-nominated artist and producer John Forté uses the word "quixotic," casually, in reference to one of the songs he had been working on. Someone asks what the word means, and Forté provides a definition, adding, "The root is from Quixote. You know. Don Quixote."
"Oh. Of course."
"Quixotic" is a perfect term for Forté's project, as presented in the documentary The Russian Winter, directed by Petter Ringbom. It's an ambitious, rambling nine-week five-city tour across Russia, in which Forté travels by train through the brutal winter, and collaborates with Russian musicians along the way.
The Russian Winter seems at first like it might be a vanity project but becomes something much more in the evocative footage of snow-bound Russia, seen on the ground and out the window of the Trans-Siberian railway. It's a culture clash in some respects, the American musician struggling with the more casual Russian sense of time (which causes much friction with his hard-working Russian promoter), but it's also a great view of the collaborative process, as musicians from different countries reveal that they share a universal language. The scenes of collaboration are some of the best in the film, and also provide an opportunity for audiences to get to know some of the hot Russian musicians of the moment.
The film is certainly a celebration of John Forté himself, who grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Brooklyn, attended Phillips Exeter, went on to perform with and write for the Fugees before launching his solo career, and then was arrested in 2000 at an airport for having in his possession $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine. He was sentenced to the mandatory 14 years.
After much activism on the part of Carly Simon, who took up his cause (he calls her a "mentor"), his sentence was finally commuted in 2008 by President Bush. He is still on probation. His career as a solo artist took off after his release from prison, and he tells amusing stories in The Russian Winter about how he really found his voice singing in the prison cell, because the acoustics were so good. It helped him to release his natural sound.
The Russian Winter is a hodgepodge of tour footage, black-and-white interviews with a thoughtful Forté, and a Russian travelogue. The group travels to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Ekaterinburg (a map would have been useful), and visits local spots including, chillingly, Ganina Yama, the pit where the murdered bodies of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife and children were dumped in 1918.
In Kazan, they visit an ornate mosque standing right beside an ornate Orthodox Cathedral, evidence of the mix of cultures in the community, and an example of how people can live side-by-side. But The Russian Winter is smart to not to try to "explain" Russia, even though there is a very funny interview in the beginning with a Russian journalist who meets with Forté in his Moscow apartment and goes off on his own country: "It's a great country, blah blah, but it has always been criminally managed: the Tsars, the Communists, the new regime. It's a bad, viciously managed country."
What we see of the Russian music business is identical to what goes on anywhere. Forté finds himself in the middle of a major battle with a composer who arranged one of his songs and insists on authorship credit when the arrangement is published.
"No," Forté says flatly, and gets up and leaves the room.
Interestingly, afterward, reflecting on the confrontation, Forté says that as a black man he is so aware of the stereotypes about black men that he knows he has to be careful when he loses his temper, because of how it may be perceived by others.
The best parts of The Russian Winter are the small observational moments: Forté and a band member playing chess on the train, the moments of collaboration in various studios as the musicians work out their different parts, the very funny "Pushkin's real good" rap Forté comes up in the spur of the moment.
Forté meets with a redheaded singer/pianist named Alina Orlova, who sings with a passionate, unearthly voice, reminiscent of Kate Bush. She sits at a piano and he listens, totally focused on her. He is trying to find a way in, something that he can add to what she has already created. After she finishes her song, he says, "Some pieces of art are too beautiful to touch. The song is perfect."
I knew almost nothing about John Forté going into this film, and I came out of it a huge fan.
All proceeds for his tours went to local orphanages, through Operation Smile and the Happy Hearts Fund, and there is a moving scene in which Forté performs at an orphanage in less-than-ideal circumstances, with a crappy sound system and one mic (he looks at the set-up and says, "We'll make it work").
The orphanage is a huge institution, grimy and bleak, and the kids are bored and yet curious about the cameras in their midst. They loll in the seats, laughing and texting, glancing at the film cameras as Forté performs. Forté has certainly played to more rapt crowds in his life, but in that moment, he was an ambassador of sorts, not just for America, but for a wider world of possibility.
He grew up in a terrible neighborhood, but he got out and got an incredible education. He then found fame and fortune and immediately tailspun into criminal behavior, for which he paid dearly. He resurrected his career, and continues to try to push the boundaries of what he is able to do (he taught himself to play guitar while in prison). And here he is, years later, in a small town in the middle of snowbound Russia, playing for a bunch of bored orphans, having the time of his life.
Come to think of it, the whole thing is incredibly quixotic.