From the director of the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom and the critically acclaimed Best of Enemies, comes The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble , a new doco about a renowned international musical collective created by legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It follows a group of diverse instrumentalists, vocalists, composers, arrangers, visual artists and storytellers as?they explore the power of music to preserve tradition, shape cultural evolution and inspire hope.
The Ensemble, named after the ancient trade route linking Asia, Africa and Europe, have been together for 15 years, although it didn’t start out that way. Rather, as Yo Yo Ma says it was simply “a group of musicians getting together and seeing what might happen when strangers meet”. The collective, which first came together in the year 2000, is drawn from an ever-changing lineup numbering more than 50. That is when Ma first assembled master musicians from the lands of the Silk Road in Lenox, Massachusetts. After 10 days of collaboration and improvisation, the workshop concluded with a concert that debuted 16 new pieces for an enthusiastic audience of musical luminaries.
Blending performance footage, personal interviews and archival film, director Morgan Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers focus on the journeys of a small group of Silk Road Ensemble mainstays. Through at times moving individual stories the filmmakers paint a portrait of a bold musical experiment and a global search for the ties that bind. They examine the many ways in which art and culture continue to define and connect people across the globe. These top-notch musos play instruments that are both familiar (think cello, clarinet and banjo, for instance) and exotic (the Arabic oud, the Chinese pipa and the Persian kamancheh).
Ma, whose background is in classical music, says when he meets someone from another tradition, he looks at how they approach music differently. “A Roma musician or an Appalachian fiddler has certain freedoms, but also specific rules. You can find the national soul in the ethos of the music of a certain region. It conjures up memories, images and historical references – all the little things that create culture.” Ma’s interest is a natural progression of years spent exploring cultural connections in the music world. Since October 2013, the filmmakers have been to China, Jordan, Turkey, Spain and all over the United States, documenting The Ensemble as well as individual members pursuing independent projects.
Neville calls it the most difficult film he has made. “It was hard to get permission to shoot in many places. We had an especially hard time in the refugee camp in Jordan and were eventually asked to leave. In China, we had a government minder watching over us at all times.”
I appreciated the individual stories, although I thought there was a randomness to the way the film was put together, jumping back and forth from one to another, seemingly at will, even losing sense of a linear time-frame. Some of the key figures back stories were particularly arduous and confronting and they made for the best subjects, but even in those instances I wanted to learn more. I felt we got a taste, but didn’t finish the full meal. As illustrious a figure as Yo-Yo Ma is, I didn’t really get a good read on him. I loved the energy, passion and conviction a number of the group displayed and their commitment to and respect for history and tradition. More than anything else, this doco highlighted the importance of their roots.
Although the film spans 15 years and uses some archival footage, there appeared to be gaps, especially in terms of concert footage. Given the musical subject, I expected more of just that – music. And there was one visual artist in particular who, in my mind, was all but given short shrift as his contribution was in a different medium, but he undoubtedly added to the output of the collective. He was one of those that required more time.
There also wasn’t what I would term a natural end point to this doco, although I did feel it became repetitive and went on for too long – notwithstanding its 96 minute running time – and by then I had tired of it. So, these artistes’ collective endeavors are full of merit, but the film trying to capture their journey, while well meaning, isn’t as strong as it could have been. They weren’t really able to enunciate why they do what they do, short of presenting us with the platitude they are moved to do so and it gives them purpose and joy. For some that may be enough. For me it wasn’t.
Rated M, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble scores a 6 out of 10.
Director: Morgan Neville
Release Date: 5 January 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television