Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tribeca ’12: Russian Winter

This film was made possible by President George W. Bush.  You’re welcome, I’m sure.  In his final days in office, the second Pres. Bush commuted the sentence of John Forté, a former hip hop producer turned neo-soul-ish vocalist, convicted of drug possession with intent.  Once at liberty, Forté is invited to launch his comeback in a country where civil liberties are dramatically eroding.  His subsequent career resurgence and tour are documented in Petter Ringbom’s The Russian Winter, which screens during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

In what his Russian manager refers to as his “accident,” Forté was intercepted in Newark International Airport carrying thirty-one pounds of liquid cocaine.  As Daniel Day-Lewis says in Gangs of New York: “oopsie daisy.”  To his credit, Forté resists playing the victim car outright, positioning himself instead as a representative of everyone currently serving unduly long minimum mandatory prison sentences for drug crimes.

So off Forté goes, touring the land of Tolstoy, frequently stopping to record tracks with well known Russian artists.  However, his Russian collaborators often sound more interesting than Forté himself.  Watch the hit video (also directed by Ringbom) for “Wind Song,” his duet with Ukraine-born SunSay and then decide who you would prefer to watch on-screen for ninety minutes.

Of course, it is Forté we get, so we observe as he rehearses, dresses down road managers, and has periodic panic attacks.  Nonetheless, it is important to note Forté is 100% in the right during what might appear to be his big ugly American moment.  When a weasel arranger tries to claim co-composer credit for one of Forté’s old song for which he simply penned a string chart, Forté tells him and his mobster-looking father what-for in no uncertain terms—and rightfully so.  I know musicians have heard this countless times before, but it always bears repeating—never let anyone mess with your publishing.

There is a great documentary about a soul vocalist playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.  It is Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, about the mysterious Rodriguez, whose life story is far more compelling and voice is considerably more distinctive than Forté’s.  In comparison, Russian Winter is just sort of whatever.  For Forté fans, it screens this Monday (4/23), Tuesday (4/24), Wednesday (4/25), and Friday (4/27).  For anyone looking to see a really good film, Sugar Man also screens Tuesday (4/24) and Friday (4/27) as part of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, now in full swing.