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Koch International presents
The Ballad of Bering Strait (2002)

"These kids are from Russia. That doesn't bother you at all?"
- A Nashville DJ, speaking to a caller, after playing a Bering Strait record

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: July 06, 2003

Director: Nina Gilden Seavey

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:38m:36s
Release Date: May 20, 2003
UPC: 741952300090
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-BB C+

DVD Review

I'm way too much of a Yankee to be any sort of arbiter on who is best suited to write and record country music, but I think it's fair to say that even the most devoted country fan wouldn't look to the outskirts of Moscow for the next big thing. But hey, you never know where you'll find a fount of creativity, and this documentary chronicles the American travails of Bering Strait, a band of seven Russians from Obninsk, a two-hour train ride from Moscow, as they pursue their collective ambition: to make it to the big time in the world of country music.

The film begins in Russia, in the summer of 1999—the seven teenagers study music theory and are classically trained, but a music teacher has instilled in them a love of country music. They're "discovered" by an American art dealer traveling in Russia, who hears the band playing at a Mexican restaurant—soon they're on their way to Nashville, to see if they've got the chops to make it. The filmmakers are blessed in that most of the band members speak excellent English; the movie chronicles their tough times in the U.S., featuring lots of double talk from the music industry, record deals that get delayed and delayed, visa problems, performing at the epicenter of country music, the Grand Ole Opry, and on from there to greater glory. It's a familiar tale of young innocents learning the harsh realities of the entertainment business, and it's a reasonably successfully told story.

But there are problems—when one of the band members gets kicked out of Bering Strait, for instance, we've got no idea why, and come to realize that in fact we know very little about these people and what drives them. With a large cast of characters, it can be difficult to keep everyone straight, and you soon realize that they're all pretty much mouthing the party line. (Bering Strait was profiled on the Today show, and the clip is shown in the film; there's not a whole lot of difference in the depth of the two portrayals.) Is there no internecine warfare among the band members? (There must be, if one of them gets the boot.) The band starts with five men and two women, and they're all living in very close quarters—pardon me for being vulgar, but where's the sex and violence? Not on camera, that's for sure.

The other big problem is that, for those of us with extremely limited knowledge of country music, it's hard to assess the musical capacity of the band. Are they just a one-off, a novelty? (Some of the most ambitious American novelists invite comparisons between their own work and Tolstoy's. But the Pynchons and Franzens and David Foster Wallaces of this world know that it would be a fool's errand for them to try and do what Tolstoy did if they were writing in Russian.) Or are they truly the rightful heirs to the tradition of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, your country music giant of choice? I've got no idea after watching this movie, because the music doesn't really speak for itself.

Things end on an up note, with Bering Strait opening for Trisha Yearwood—we see two songs from their set, one in English, the second in Russian. The first sounds to my ears like an adequate country song at best, performed with skill but with no inspiration; the second seems much more fun and spirited and original, and the band members look a whole lot happier. But hey, what do I know? The vast majority of what I know about country music I learned from watching Hee Haw.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The movie was shot on video, and it doesn't look bad; there's an obvious trade-off, though, in favor of access and portability and slighting image quality. The transfer is more than satisfactory, though, with little artifacting or interference.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Some of the music sounds better on the 5.1 track—richer and more mixed—but the 2.0 track is more than adequate, and may even be preferable in the dialogue scenes.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Bering Strait music video
  2. extended concert footage
Extras Review: The most interesting extra for fans of the band is probably their full set (30m:35s) from Wolf Trap, opening for Yearwood; only two of these songs make it into the feature. The deleted scene (03m:23s) shows a few members of the band singing a Russian song around a campfire; the music video, Bearing Straight, is pretty typical stuff, with shots of the band on the road, in various hotels, in Times Square, and so on. The audio for the two trailers is in 2.0 only; if you've got your system set up to listen to the 5.1 track and you don't click over, the trailers will play in silence.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

You'll come away from this film wishing the very best for the members of Bering Strait and their extended musical family, but you won't come to know them in the manner you might in a great documentary, and unless your aesthetic is radically different from mine, you're unlikely to want to rush out and buy their CD, either.


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