Film review: The Music of Strangers – joyous documentary on Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble
Some of the participants in Ma’s musical collective have braved repression to continue playing, and the film celebrates music’s unique ability to unite people
Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville (2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom) teams up with acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma to tell the fascinating and emotionally stirring tale of the Silk Road Ensemble. An eclectic collective of traditional artists, hailing from some of the world’s most remote and turbulent regions, the group attempts to find common ground through the musical arts, while championing unique cultural expression from their disparate home countries.
Fifteen years after its conception, Silk Road is now a successful multicultural educational programme embedded everywhere from New York’s inner-city schools to Harvard University. But the original focus of the project continues, and Neville’s film follows Ma as he assembles – almost Seven Samurai style – his latest orchestra for a special reunion concert.
Ma and Neville visit the homes of musicians such as Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh, or Kayhan Kalhor, who braved imprisonment to continue playing and teaching the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument, in Iran, and recruit these pioneers of their craft into the ensemble. It’s apparent that music is more than merely a creative outlet for these men and women: it’s an escape – both literally, as their talents have enabled them to travel the world performing, and spiritually.
Together with Chinese artists such as Wu Man and Tan Dun (who won an Oscar for his score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Ma’s collective makes incredibly moving music together, fuelled by a deep-seated desire to represent, preserve and promote their respective cultures. The resulting cinematic experience is a joyous, intelligent and moving journey, but above all else it’s a celebration of music and its unique power to transcend boundaries and unite us all.
The Music of Strangers opens on October 27
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