By Elias Savada.
Music and cinema are both universal languages. I can’t think of another film that blends the best of these audio and visual worlds into a most enjoyable adventure about mixed cultures and disparate lives that becomes the sum of much more than its parts. Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who brought the world to its feet with 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) and last year worked with Robert Gordon to examine the television debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley in the marvelous Best of Enemies, unleashes a wondrous examination of the human spirit with his new work.
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble unreels with a robust intensity that is a masterfully orchestrated examination of the Silk Road Project, a charitable, cultural group that finds its heart beating in rhythm with its founder and artistic director, the world renown cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He’s rightly portrayed as a passionate humanitarian, teacher, and entertainer of presidents (get a chuckle out of the footage of him, introduced by Leonard Bernstein, performing as a child prodigy for President and Mrs. Kennedy). It’s clear from this broad sketch that his moral strength and uplifting – and often whimsical – vision about advancing global harmony is through music (performances, education, free enterprise).
While the structure of the film follows the expected introductions of the lead ensemble members, there is adequate back fill and lateral story lines to present each with his or her expectations, exasperations, and energy. There is an overwhelming sadness that is the diaspora for many of the artists, particularly in the last third of the film. Kinan Azmeh , a native of Damascus, is both a composer and an extraordinary clarinetist who studied at Julliard. Grammy-nominated Wu Man (40 albums and counting) from Hangzhou, China, is the world’s greatest pipa player, often presenting rock riffs on this unusual lute-like instrument. Acclaimed virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, who grew up in Tehran, plays the kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument, and composes. One of the group’s founding members is Cristina Pato, hailing from Galicia, Spain. She is a vibrant gaita (Galician bagpipe) player; a pop star back home. Kevork Mourad, born in Kamechli, Syria, is often seen in the film doing spontaneous drawings during the ensemble’s performances. Most now live in the United States.
Some may claim that by combining all these world musicians (and there are actually dozens), you might be diluting the origins of the music, but, as one of the members of the group himself wonders, at its start the Silk Road Ensemble had not yet grown into the creative cauldron that it would eventually become. Yo-Yo Ma comments that it was a nightmare trying to describe their goal in the beginning, back more than 15 years ago.
When not showcasing the musicians performing, the film is nicely counterpointing their backstories, often in their native countries, sometimes with older footage. The camera is in constant flowing motion, seemingly in sync with the music’s rhythm, enforcing the passion of whatever is on screen.
It’s spritely and intensely edited by Jason Zeldes and Helen Kearns. Top shelf. Images from different continents blur together within the vivid pull focus techniques and swirling and/or slo-motion shots supervised by director of photography Graham Willoughby. The “action” moves with a lovely flow, hopscotching about the globe. Neville offers small bits of humor that are strategically placed for best effect. One of my favorites was a comment from Yo-Yo Ma’s son, Nicholas, who, as a child, thought his father worked at the airport, because that’s his father always went.
As part of the group’s outreach, the crew might wander into obscure parts of the planet in search of the next addition to the international smorgasbord of talent. Then the film switches, flawlessly, to mournful music, expressive of the tragedies that have befallen many in this group. Lost friends, lost families, lost homes.
The Music of Strangers is proud of itself. It’s a quite entertaining public service announcement with its own agenda. It’s a worthwhile mission – paving over the world’s cultural and political potholes, filling them with music.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.