The Music of Strangers: A Silk Purse, by David Bax
Maybe the main takeaway from Morgan Neville’s The Music of Strangers is what a charming and affable fellow Yo-Yo Ma is. The rest of the movie may feature plenty of decent music and some superficially pleasant aesthetics but none of it makes as lasting an impression as Ma, waiting in the wings of an auditorium, sarcastically rolling his eyes at the introduction he’s being given. For a modern master of a classical art form, he’s self-deprecating, loquacious and surprisingly funny.
The movie’s not really about him, though. Or at least it’s not only about him. Ma is merely the founder of the film’s true subject, the Silk Road Ensemble, a touring group of musicians, each representing a different folk tradition, who come together to create new music. After awkwardly invoking September 11, 2001 to give the group’s origin more inspirational heft, Neville settles into juggling a handful of biographical vignettes on the ensemble’s various members.
Neville’s presentation is more ambitious–sometimes to the point of grandiloquence–than one might expect from a relatively low-stakes documentary. The form often outstrips the narrative but the resulting performance sequences are a joy to watch. He establishes different locales with quick, wordless montages and airborne drone shots and then shoots the musicians with exuberantly sweeping, ducking, diving, wide-angle steadicam takes interspersed with intense close-ups of fingers playing and ears listening.
It’s not all joyous, though. Some of these musicians are from strife-ravaged places such as Syria and the corresponding performances are mixed with war footage. Neville is not exactly offering up deep insights here but his plain insistence on the power of music over all else resonates. When, like in the recent Song of Lahore, he delves into the slowly dying traditions of these regional instruments, the impending loss is deeply felt.
For the most part, The Music of Strangers is little more than a puff piece buoyed by some pretty good music. Occasionally, though, it reaches higher, showing us how human beings can represent their unique cultural identities while also being individually expressive enough to make us question our assumptions and perceptions. All that and you can tap your toes to boot.