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John Forte: "The Russian Winter"
04-26-2012, 12:54 AM (This post was last modified: 04-26-2012 12:54 AM by nikki.)
Post: #1
John Forte: "The Russian Winter"





A Rapper’s Strange Trip to Russia

SOURCE: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/...to-russia/

Why has it taken so long for someone to make a movie about the musician John Forté? His life story certainly has the requisite sweep: Forté grew up fatherless and poor in Brownsville, Brooklyn, only to get a scholarship to one of the best prep schools in the country, Phillips Exeter. He received a Grammy nomination for his work with the Fugees, then embarked on a critically acclaimed solo career, before getting arrested at Newark Airport for carrying $1.4 million in liquid cocaine. He was sentenced to a mandatory 14 years in prison, served seven, and then had his sentence commuted in 2008 by George W. Bush at the urging of a pair of unlikely allies: the singer Carly Simon and the Republican Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.

“The Russian Winter,” which has its debut tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a documentary about Forté, but it has very little to do with the Fugees, jail, Carly Simon or growing up poor in Brooklyn. Instead, this strangely moving film, which Forté co-produced, centers around a nine-week music-making journey that he took across Russia in 2011 — a trip for which he had to obtain special permission from his parole officer.

Forté is 37, handsome, bearded and very impressively dreadlocked. When we met, on Tuesday, he was dressed in a plaid shirt and his sun-baked dreads were swept up into a giant coil about his head. We were sitting by the rooftop pool of the Soho House, in the meatpacking district, sipping on sparkling mineral water; it was a curious perch from which to look back on his time in prison, not to mention whatever impulse had sent Forté to Russia.

“I think the knee-jerk reaction of coming home was to make a documentary about my life preceding prison, and what took place in prison, leading up to me coming home. But something about it just didn’t feel right. It felt exploitative,” Forté said. “You know, I went to prep school. When I came back to the ‘hood, it wasn’t like people slapped me on the back and said, ‘Wow, you got your stripes now.’ But there were so many guys that went [to prison] for a year, went away for two years, went away for five years. And when they came back, it was almost like they were praised. And that’s the last message I wanted to send. There was nothing cool about my time away.”

The film, which is directed by Petter Ringbom, tracks Forté as he collaborates with Russian musicians across the country and holds a series of concerts for local charities. It begins in Moscow, where Forté is met by an adoring audience at Spaso House, the official residence of the American ambassador to Russia. His reception is frostier at the Miss Russia 2011 beauty competition, held at an oligarchs’ playground on the outskirts of Moscow. As Miss Tartarstan and Miss Vladivostok stilt-walk across the stage on their stilettos, Forté and his bandmates play background music, looking like they have no idea where they are or how exactly they got there.

Almost every performance or press interview they do in Russia is preceded by Soviet-style bureaucratic hiccups. Delays are constant. Forté is told one thing, then the opposite. No one understands him, and people in the street stare at his dreadlocks. He meets Artemy Troitsky, an adorable aging bohemian rock critic, who explains to Forté why the advertisements he paid for were never put up around Moscow. “You’ve been duped,” he says. “It’s always this story with Russia, great culture, wonderful people, blah, blah — but it has always been criminally, badly managed.”

The culture clash culminates in a showdown with a young composer hired to do orchestral arrangements for one of Forté’s songs. The composer demands co-author credit, which infuriates Forté. “I will terminate everything right now. This is my song, not our song,” he shouts. “Don’t try to come in and take anything of mine.” He storms out of the room and, a little later, the composer backs off.

“I didn’t want to editorialize this thing so I came off looking like a saint or everything was perfect,” Forté told me. “The fact of the matter is we had a number of incredible moments but we also had a few bumps along the way.”

Forté finds his groove in smaller cities, like Nizhny Novgorod, where he meets up with the coquettish Lithuanian Alina Orlova, who performs her sung poetry in a trancelike state. Tentatively, they try to make music together. “If you have any kind of song that has an open verse, I can come up with something right now,” Forté explains. Orlova throws herself into the enchantingly delicate ballad “Lijo,” and when she finishes, Forté looks defeated. “Some pieces of art are too beautiful to be touched,” he says. But a few minutes later, she’s tapping out something different on the keyboard, then he belts out a few verses before throwing it back to her: “Now I want you to find a one-line refrain.”

It’s this same kind of on-the-fly collaborative process that Forté tries out with a range of stellar Russian artists, including the Tom Waits-influenced jazz quartet Billy’s Band and the vocal wizard Sunsay. (He was the whinier half of 5’nizza, a superb Ukrainian acoustic duo that disbanded in 2007.) As the collaborations mount and more concerts are held across the country, “Dzhon For-tay” actually becomes something of a local celebrity, and a video he makes with Sunsay, ”Wind Song,” goes viral.

Most of the Russian artists involved with the film have flown in for the Tribeca premiere. But Carly Simon, whom Forté calls his “spiritual godmother” and who had fought so tirelessly for Forté’s release from prison, cannot make the event. “She’s receiving a lifetime achievement award in Los Angeles, and she’s so devastated that she won’t be able to be there,” Forté said. “But I screened it for her a few months back at Martha’s Vineyard, and she cried.”

On Sunday, Forté will perform with the cast of “The Russian Winter” at the Bowery Ballroom. “We have a huge, huge list of guest artists who are appearing,” said Forté, mentioning Natasha Bedingfield, Talib Kweli and Carly Simon’s son, Ben Taylor. “That goes back to the mission I had with doing this film in Russia, which is to not just make this film about me, but to collaborate. I know I didn’t do this alone. I didn’t find success alone. I didn’t find failure alone. But when you do find success, I think it’s important to pay homage to those that helped you get there.”
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