The axiom that music is a universal language that crosses all cultural and national boundaries is nicely illustrated in Morgan Neville’s documentary “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” which recounts the famed Chinese-American cellist’s organization of a musical collective drawn from many regions who bring their individual skills together in collaborative performance. It’s an engaging portrait of the transcendent power of music as well as a moving testimony to the effect of political turmoil on individual artists.
The film begins by briefly surveying Ma’s career, beginning with footage of Leonard Bernstein introducing the then solemn seven-year old at a performance before Jack and Jackie Kennedy. He grew into one of the world’s foremost stars on his instrument, but also an artist constantly expanding horizons by playing different types of music and searching for ways to collaborate with players who have mastered unusual, often non-western, instruments. His effort to form a collective that would encompass the globe began in the late nineties, but gained steam after the events of 2001, which proved a need for greater cross-cultural understanding. The Silk Road Ensemble, as the group came to be called, has a fluctuating membership from performance to performance, but it has found popular success both on the stage and on CD.
Neville’s film covers the early days of the Ensemble through interviews and archival footage, and offers clips from rehearsals and later concerts. But it also introduces some of the group’s members apart from Ma, offering not merely observations about their musicianship but sketches of their lives, with special notice given to circumstances in their countries that have impacted their ability to develop their skills and to express themselves through their instruments as well as their voices. Among those spotlighted are Cristina Pato, a Spaniard who plays the Galician bagpipe; Wu Man, a master of a Chinese lute called the pipa; Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist; and Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian who plays the kamancheh, a bowed instrument perched on his knee. All four are situated within their national contexts, with Kalhor’s story—he left Iran after the 1979 revolution but later returned, only to have to leave again in 2009 following the demonstrations that resulted from a disputed election—symbolizes the sort of political vicissitudes the musicians often endured.
“The Music of Strangers” is well constructed—special praise is due the camerawork of Graham Willoughby and the editing of Jason Zeldes and Helen Kearns, who combine to present incisive sketches of the various musicians, including Ma (one delicious scene captures him backstage during a long-winded introduction, commenting dismissively about the praise being showered on him and expressing concern that a Q&A is supposed to follow). Those portraits don’t go as deep as one might like—you expect that there’s more to Ma than the geniality that makes up his public persona (and is hinted at in his observation that he’s spent most of his married years away from home), for instance, and apart from Kalhor, the treatment is relatively superficial. It would have been nice to have had a few extended musical performances. And fuller information on the unusual instruments would have been welcome.
Neville’s choices are nevertheless defensible ones, and if this film lacks the surprise of “20 Feet From Stardom” and the tartness of “Best of Enemies”—his two most recent efforts—it’s still an enjoyable trek down the Silk Road, with moments of poignancy along the way.