Film Review: The Music of Strangers

The Music of Strangers is an extraordinary film about cellist Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

The Music of Strangers
Directed by Morgan Neville
In cinemas from March 16

The Music of Strangers is the extraordinary new film from Morgan Neville, the director of the Oscar®-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom., This is the celebratory story of the renowned international musical collective, the Silk Road Ensemble created by legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma with musicians from several countries including Turkey, Syria, Spain and Iran,

The feature-length documentary follows this group of diverse instrumentalists, vocalists, composers, arrangers, visual artists and storytellers as they travel and give concerts at various locations around the world; including the US, Turkey and China. They give concerts to a school in Queens, a Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana and to Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.

The musical journey is structured around an account of the career of YoYo Ma with the cellist talking about his life, the Silk Road Ensemble along with clips of the young prodigy’s performances.

Other notable musicians also make comments on Ma and the project including Leonard Bernstein and Tan Dun.

It is some of the individual stories of musicians which are the most impressive part of the film with musicians such as Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor who has had a tragic life, with many of his family killed since the Iranian revolution.  He performs traditional Persian music, on a kamancheh, a traditional string instrument and his music and his performances are banned by the government for being subversive.

Then there is Christina Pato, a Spanish bagpipe player who appears to be transforming Galician culture in part by trying to preserve the old folk tunes of the area as well as creating a new music, almost a punk reinvention of bagpipe performances.

Wu Man who plays a traditional Chinese instrument – the pipa – is shown playing traditional tunes but she also crosses boundaries using the instrument as a contemporary guitar. She visits a group of elderly musicians and shadow puppeteers in rural |China, most of whom have never left their village. The encounter leads to the troupe performing in New York.

Much of the film sees the musicians essentially jamming, feeding disparate sounds, melodies and rhythms into elaborate performances which are metaphors for the cross-cultural relationships which can develop between people and nations.

It’s a film about musicians and their camaraderie, the power of music to preserve tradition and to shape cultural evolution. It is a rewarding film not just because of the music but because of the way in which the group finds a common ground in making music and inspiring others.