As Russian troops mass on the border with Ukraine and rumors of war rattle the world, Alex Carlin has a dream. It involves hot Russian babes, oceans of alcohol, and an endless rock ‘n’ roll bacchanal that traverses the vast nation’s 10 time zones by rail. He’s got another dream too, about saving the planet from global warming by bringing together Russian and American musicians for a “We Are the World”-style singalong. These two visions converge in the 40-minute award-winning documentary Alex In Russialand, which screens Saturday night at the Dresher Ensemble Studio in West Oakland, followed by Carlin’s live solo performance.
The Berkeley-reared musician, who co-founded the power pop band The Rubinoos as a teenager and joined the seminal punk outfit Psychotic Pineapple in 1976, has spent the past two decades performing around Europe. He established his first base of operations squatting in Amsterdam, then made deep inroads in Eastern Europe while living in Krakow from 2001-10. But in the years before the pandemic Carlin lived a nomadic life on the state-owned Russian Railways (RZD), a lifestyle he embraced with such gusto he wrote one of his catchiest tunes to celebrate the service.
Carlin spent so much time in transit “there was no reason to rent anywhere,” he said. “For six or seven years I was doing constant touring from Siberia to the Black Sea and throughout [the] northeast. I walk into the train and I get a great feeling. It’s the only time I get to sleep at all. I’m doing too much stuff and partying.”
His maiden voyage as a director and editor, Alex In Russialand follows the escapades of the Alex Carlin Band with longtime drummer Denis Matuizo and the more recent bassist Andrey Samoylov (the fate of several of Carlin’s previous eight bassists calls to mind This Is Spinal Tap, except that his fallen comrades fell victim to Russian hazards). Powered by his hi-octane voiceover, the documentary follows him from various festivals and motorcycle rallies as gigs bleed into booze-soaked afterparties. Through it all, he maintains his good cheer and indefatigable spirit, flattering his Russian audiences, entertaining them with his three-chord anthems, and stumping for better U.S./Russian relations.
The fact that Carlin is in his 60s makes the film both amazing and alarming. Less than 10 minutes into Alex In Russialand my liver started to throb in sympathy with his. The Energizer Bunny would blow a circuit trying to maintain his pace. The man holds the Guinness Record for longest solo concert, a feat he achieved in June 2009, rocking non-stop in Radomsko, Poland for 32 hours (starting with the entire Beatles songbook from memory, “which took up about the first 10 hours,” he said).
The scion of a distinguished Berkeley family — his late father Jerome Carlin founded the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation in 1966 before turning his attention to painting, and his mother Joy Carlin is an esteemed actor and director who served as the Berkeley Rep’s interim artistic director in the 1980s – he comes across as something of a holy fool on his travels.
It’s a stance he adopted early on as a fifth-grader at Cragmont Elementary School in 1967 when he and Jon Rubin formed The Constipated Orange, “making fun of what we’re hearing in San Francisco,” he said. “We’re Berkeley brats, making sarcastic remarks about psychedelics. There was The Electric Prunes and Moby Grape, so we called ourselves The Constipated Orange.”
While devoting himself to music, he pursued his far-flung interests living in New York City in the mid-1970s, studying Russian during a year at Columbia and film and Russian lit at NYU (he credits his previous attendance at Pacific Film Archives screenings with honing his eye for cinema). Joining Psychotic Pineapple brought him back to the Bay Area, and after the group faded Carlin ended up earning a degree in Russian literature from Cal in 1984.
His affection for Russian culture and people is evident throughout the documentary but he seems equally sincere about his affection for the lack of a last call at Russian bars. Whether he’s drinking or strolling around a town, Carlin is never without his guitar (“I feel kind of naked without it,” he said). Ready to make up a new song on the spot, he often ends up serenading new acquaintances, who are as likely to look alarmed or skeptical as delighted.
But he also encounters strangers who recognize him from social media or who’ve seen him perform (he was featured at Woodstock 2019, which took place in Russia after the 50th anniversary U.S. festival imploded). The fact that the camera openly ogles women’s cleavage and black-leather-clad backsides can give the film an unreconstructed 1980s MTV vibe.
The film captures the moment when Carlin connects with a renowned Russian rocker who’s settled in Los Angeles, the connection he needs to start work on assembling his international coalition to perform his anthem “Climate Restoration.” His serious side doesn’t surface much in Alex In Russialand, but he’s been covering U.N. Climate conferences around the world blogging for the Center for Media and Democracy.
“In Glasgow I actually sang the climate song at an official U.N. event,” he said. “They say it is the first time rock ‘n’ roll has ever been done at an official U.N. event.”
He introduces his climate anthem in the film, accompanied by a bevy of writhing go-go girls (supplied by the promoter of Woodstock 2019). Given the present tensions and the, shall we say, prickly relations between Russia and the West throughout Carlin’s rail residency, it’s conspicuous that the name Putin never comes up. He does work in a nice couplet rhyming Mikhail Gorbachev with beef stroganoff. Will his Falstaffian persona get in the way of his environmental activism? Alex In Russialand doesn’t really provide an answer, but it’s quite a ride.