This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
Standing with his bandmates on an ice-encrusted platform somewhere in Siberia, as workers chip the ice off the train wheels, Grammy-nominated artist and producer John Forté uses the word “quixotic,” casually, in reference to one of the songs he’s working on. Someone asks what the word means, and Forté provides a definition, adding, “The root is from Quixote. You know. Don Quixote.”
“Quixotic” is a perfect term for Forté’s project, as presented in the documentary The Russian Winter, directed by Petter Ringbom. His project is an ambitious, rambling, nine-week five-city tour across Russia, in which Forté travels by train through the brutal winter, collaborating with Russian musicians along the way.
The Russian Winter is, at first glance, a vanity project but it is something much more in the evocative footage of snow-bound Russia, seen on the ground and out the window of the Trans-Siberian railway. There’s a culture clash, the American musician struggling with the Russians’ casual sense of time (this causes much friction with Forté’s hard-working Russian promoter), but Russian Winter also provides a welcome look at the collaborative process, as musicians from different countries discover they share a universal language. The scenes of collaboration are the best in the film, providing an opportunity for audiences to get to know some of the hot Russian musicians of the moment.
The film is 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. In 2000, he was arrested at an airpot 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.
The Russian Winter is a hodgepodge of tour footage, a Russian travelogue, and black-and-white interview footage with a thoughtful Forté. The group travels to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Ekaterinburg (a map would have been useful), and they visit 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. The Russian Winter does not try to “explain” Russia, even though there is a very funny interview with a Russian journalist who 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, reflecting on the confrontation, Forté says that 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 collaboration in 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, almost 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 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.”
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 Dickensian location, 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 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 situation, but he got out and received an incredible education. He then found fame and fortune, after which he 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 (while in prison he taught himself to play guitar). 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.