Film Review: ‘The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’

A new documentary by Morgan Neville ('20 Feet from Stardom') looks at a group of one-world musicians who make a joyful noise.

The Music of Strangers Yo Yo
Courtesy of TIFF

The fabled Oscar-winning documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China” (1980), which followed Stern as he taught the children of Communist China to play — and love — Western classical music, captured a new kind of synergy between the West and the East. In “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” a documentary directed by Morgan Neville (who made the Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom”), musicians from all over the world join the legendary cellist to form a virtuoso ragtag band, and they create a joyful noise — a percolating life force that’s equal parts klezmer and Bollywood, with maybe a hint of disco. The instrumentalists, who hail from Spain, Syria, Japan, Iran, and other nations, are so at home with global musical fusion that they might almost have been among the Chinese teenagers taught by Isaac Stern — and, in fact, one of them was (we see her in a clip with Stern from 1980). Her name is Wu Man, and she’s the world master of the pipa, a short-necked wooden lute that she plays like Jimmy Page unplugged. Wu is a traditionalist, devoted to an instrument of painstaking demand that stretches back to the third century. But she is also a free-form sound machine. “The Music of Strangers” is an aural celebration that’s about using the past to break free of boundaries.

Could it prove to be the kind of landmark musical documentary that “From Mao to Mozart” or “Buena Vista Social Club” was? Perhaps, but probably not, since the movie, despite enthralling moments, is so self-intoxicated by its blissed-out vision of global healing that it’s a little soft.

The film has a marvelous focal point in Yo-Yo Ma, the superstar Chinese-American cellist — already a walking icon of international synergy — who serves as its host, hero, and grinning musical bard. We see Ma at age seven, in an extraordinary black-and-white clip, when he was introduced by Leonard Bernstein to perform at the White House for JFK and Jackie Kennedy. As a boy, he appears deeply serious, but he became an impish maestro, with a playful mockery that lets you know he doesn’t take life nearly as seriously as he does art. By the time he’d conquered the classical-music world, he was restless to let off steam and create something audacious.

“The Music of Strangers” is about what he did, maybe to liberate his own classically rigorous soul. In 2000, he began to pull together the Silk Road Ensemble, and from the very start they were totally improvising who they were and what they would sound like. Ma knew that he wanted musicians from a vast range of backgrounds and traditions, but what’s amazing is how well they mesh once the musical modes are laid on top of one another. It’s almost analogous to the way that Joseph Campbell demonstrated the spiritual links underlying disparate religious mythologies.

Kinan Azmeh, the clarinetist from Syria, does furious solos that make him sound like he’s charming a snake at a wedding in a “Star Wars” movie, and Kayhan Kalhor, from Iran, is a master of the kamancheh, a small bowed instrument held on the knee, from which he pours out oodles of notes in a mystic trance. The ensemble has an Indian tabla player, a Chinese bamboo mouth-organ player, violinists and violists from the U.S. and Italy, and a performer who is indisputably the group’s rock star: the Spanish bagpipe wizard Cristina Pato, a happy spitfire who twists and tames that familiar blaring tone until it becomes an aural light that she’s writing in the air with.

A number of the musicians have pasts racked by violence and political turmoil, and Neville thumbnails their struggle. Kayhan, especially, is the film’s symbolic focal point: As a boy, he was sent away from Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution, and then he came back, eager to make a home in Tehran, then he left again following the upheavals of 2009, and then tried to return to headline a concert, which was cancelled at the last minute for reasons of “security.” The theme of “The Music of Strangers” is that these children of oppression became brothers and sisters of joy, linked by the throbbing global heartbeat of music. But once Neville has chronicled the formation of the Silk Road Ensemble and laid out sketches of the musicians, there’s nowhere for the film to go.

“The Music of Strangers” has been put together with great dexterity (it’s vibrantly edited by Jason Zeldes and Helen Kearns), with Neville going for a version of the same triumph-over-adversity narrative he used in “20 Feet from Stardom,” where the backup singers emerged from the shadow of their obscurity — the result of racial pigeonholing — to sing into the spotlight. But as Neville demonstrated in his most recent film, the superb “Best of Enemies” (co-directed with Robert Gordon), which was about the William Buckley-Gore Vidal debates during the political conventions of 1968, adversity tends to be a lot more dramatic than the triumph over it. “The Music of Strangers” is a portrait of musical salvation that could have used more of an undertow.

Where the movie could have gotten that — but didn’t — is from Yo-Yo Ma. Early on, there’s a terrific scene in which he’s introduced to give a speech by an MC who reels off his achievements, and Ma stands off-stage debunking every claim, suggesting that he’s a far more ambiguous — and doubt-riddled — person than the laudatory words suggest. But the film gives us only a scant glimpse of the complicated human being beneath the smiling celebrity charm. Not that Ma ever seems less than real; he builds the Silk Road Ensemble right around his effusive, fun-loving core. But any artist this forceful has to have a few more layers to him. If “The Music of Strangers” had taken a deeper look at what makes Yo-Yo Ma tick, if might have been a memorable documentary instead of a movie that, for all its ebullient rock-of-the-ancients vibes, winds up having the ring of an infomercial for one-world utopia.

Film Review: ‘The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’

Reviewed at HBO, June 7, 2016. (In Toronto Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: <strong>96 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A The Orchard release of a Participant Media, Tremelo Productions, HBO Documentary Films, Silkroad, Humanities, JustFilms, Pershing Square Foundation, and The Orchard production. Produced by Caitrin Rogers. Executive producers, Laura Freid, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyerman, Julie Goldman. Co-executive producer, Cristin Canterbury Bagnall.
  • Crew: Directed by Morgan Neville; camera, Graham Willoughby; (color); editors, Jason Zeldes, Helen Kearns; music, the Silk Road Ensemble.
  • With: Yo-Yo Ma, Wu Man, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato.