In the appealing documentary "The Ballad of Bering Strait," a charming Russian bluegrass band travels to Nashville in pursuit of the American Dream. The high-spirited, hard-working group, Bering Strait, doesn't lack for can-do attitude, talent or sponsorship, but as the young members soon discover, it's not as easy as they'd imagined to pull yourself up by your guitar straps.
Nina Gilden Seavey, director of George Washington University's documentary center, and her cinematographer, Erich Roland, capture the iconoclastic group's frustrating quest for stardom in this cinema-verite collage of talking heads, performance footage and scrapbook photos. It isn't wildly imaginative, but its subjects are novel enough in their own right. They're a little bit country and a little bit Rachmaninoff.
Seavey and Roland, who spent two years-plus filming the seven teens, fill in the musicians' early lives using snapshots as a backdrop for their recollections. They shot them rehearsing in the birch woods, studying at the Moscow Music Conservatory and explaining their ambitions to dubious parents. And then it was on to Tennessee.
The kids are practically broke when they arrive on Music Row in 1999. However, they have a lot more going for them than many talented, aspiring artists from down home. Courtesy of the American art dealer who discovered them, they have already acquired a veteran producer and a road-tested manager.
Although they land a record contract, cut an album and play the Grand Ole Opry, lasting success continually eludes them. All told, they spend four years on the verge of a breakthrough. They may be achy-breaky in their hearts, but the kids aren't whiners. And in the end, they acquire a measure of recognition.
"Bering Strait" never addresses an obvious issue: With the exception of its diva of a lead singer, the band lacks charisma and its music is bland. That is, until the young musicians light into a number with obvious Russian roots and native lyrics. At that point, they sound like liquid sunshine.
The Ballad of Bering Strait (98 minutes, at Landmark Bethesda Row) is unrated.