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Bering Strait's Bluegrass: You Ain't Seen Nothing Nyet

By David Segal

A few minutes into "The Ballad of Bering Strait," a young man with a banjo finger-picks "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," an Earl Scruggs tune that is the flashiest and most famous ever written for the instrument. It's a tricky cascade of notes and the version in the documentary, which was part of the Washington's International Film Festival a few weeks ago, is as good as any you'll hear.

What's amazing, though, isn't the musician's skill, but his name, nationality and the setting. He's Ilya Toshinsky, a mop-topped Russian who is playing before a pair of rather dour instructors at an elite school of music in Moscow. The look on their faces, at least initially, implies these teachers prefer Chopin, but as Toshinsky works "Breakdown's" knee-thumping crescendo they start to smile, almost despite themselves. When the song is over they have that giddy look that attaches to everyone after his first hoedown.

The immense, culture-crossing power of American country music shines throughout "Bering Strait," which follows a group of Russian youngsters so smitten by bluegrass and Nashville pop that they master the genres and then form a band. Through a few strokes of good luck, Bering Strait, as the group christens itself, is discovered in a bar by an American businessman with connections to the Nashville major-label establishment. And in 1999, all seven members of the group move to Tennessee in the hopes of getting signed, recording an album and touring to rapturous acclaim.

The tale, as it unfolds over 2 1/2 years, condensed to a 97-minute film, often feels like a country tune of the heartbreak-and-a-beer variety. There are setbacks, delays and disasters, including a freak fire that incinerates the apartment where three members of the band live. Fiddle player Sergei Passov is seen on local Nashville television, recounting how he and his friends leaped from a balcony after retrieving their instruments, the only personal possessions they were able to save.

There are triumphs, too, and director Nina Gilden Seavey keeps her cameras on Bering's increasingly antsy members through months of broken promises and aborted deals, right up till the band at last nabs a measure of glory by opening for Trisha Yearwood at Wolf Trap. Though the crowd applauds, it isn't exactly the payoff that you root for as you watch these remarkably resilient and well-behaved kids struggle for dignity in the shark-infested waters of Music Row. You keep waiting for a video shoot and a Country Music Award sweep, which doesn't happen, at least in the movie.

But there was a happy ending -- or rather, the beginning of a happy ending -- and at Lisner Auditorium on April 26, when the movie was screened, the band itself delivered the news. After the credits rolled, Bering Strait appeared and played a 30-minute set, which began with word that a debut album is slated for August release on Universal Records.

The crowd at Lisner, worked into a frenzy of sympathy by the film, almost gasped with delight when the band played afterward. But whether Bering will find a pot of rubles at the end of the major-label rainbow is hardly clear, and not merely because few acts ever earn enough to cover the high cost of their launch.

Bering's brief set highlighted the group's mastery of country idioms and its flawless command of singing English, but that will get you only so far. There are about 2,000 bands with an identical sound and similar accents in clubs across the nation. Bering needs to fuse something original out of the two radically different cultures that created it -- the musical equivalent of a boilermaker, Smirnoff with a Bud chaser.

They already have the ingredients. Bering's last song on the 26th was a tune it played at Wolf Trap, a Russian-language number that would have delighted Granny from "The Beverly Hillbillies" if she'd been raised in Omsk. Nobody at Lisner had ever heard anything like the sound that goosed them straight out of their seats.

For now, strangely enough, "The Ballad of Bering Strait" is more interesting than Bering Strait. (The movie tied for first for the Audience Award, a popularity contest, at the D.C. Film Festival.) Seavey, head of the Documentary Center at George Washington University, has a pleasantly invisible touch; she wisely stands back and lets these teenagers tell their story, capturing the tedium of the band's 24 unsigned months with a pitiless eye. Bering owes its life, we learn, to a Russian music teacher, shown only in dated photographs, who somehow fell in love with American old-time music. He assembled the group, then demanded 10-hour days of rehearsal and practice.

The training pays off. Lead vocalist Natasha Borzilova has diva qualities that only the good Lord could have given her, but she also knows her way around classical guitar and her voice has a practiced soulful sheen that seems fermented in Kentucky mulch. Alexander "Sasha" Ostrovsky handles dobro, steel guitar and lap steel like a studio pro, and Passov's fiddle and mandolin are excellent, though usually buried too deeply in the mix to be heard.

When Bering's members land in Nashville they live with their manager, who ends up mortgaging everything but his kidneys to subsidize the group's living expenses when a series of record deals fall through. Each time the band is ready to ink a contract, there's a high-level shake-up among Nashville plutocrats, and visa restrictions prevent the musicians from getting menial jobs at, say, Burger King. For much of the movie, they hone their skills, keep in touch with relatives back home and wait.

Why Bering can't earn small checks at local honky-tonks and clubs isn't explained. At last, they get to play at the Grand Ole Opry, where they're embraced by a crowd elated that a bunch of foreigners can kick it like Appalachians. In the film's most memorable moments, a local radio station plays a Bering tune and Seavey interviews some grizzled locals at a pool hall for an audio taste test. The reviews are mixed, and everyone asked to repeat Natasha Borzilova's name either mangles it or flat-out refuses to even try. Bering's exotic origins, it seems, are both its biggest selling point and its greatest obstacle.

But then again, what's the point of hailing from Moscow if you can't let your inner Russki out? Bering Strait could well move beyond novelty act status, but to do so the group needs to bridge continents, as its name promises, rather than just prove it can leave one and convincingly settle in another.

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