If the screen went dark during THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS that would be a disappointment, but if the sound failed, that would be a tragedy. While this documentary, subtitled “Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” is lovely to watch, it’s even more beautiful to hear.
“I’m always trying to figure out, at some level, who I am and how I fit in the world, which I think is something that I share with seven billion other people,” Ma says early in the film. That curiosity led him to assemble the Silk Road Ensemble, a collective of some 50 musicians and other artists from across the globe. “This was like the Manhattan Project of music,” one interviewee says of the group, which was founded in 2000.
Morgan Neville, the documentary’s director, follows the ensemble as it performs, and profiles a few of its members — among them Kayhan Kalhor, a kamancheh player from Iran, and Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Syria — who speak about the threatened traditions of their homelands. There are discussions of the relevance of music in a violent world, and of the stress of staying true to one’s art while mixing with other styles. It’s both thoughtful and lively, and a nice companion to last year’s SONG OF LAHORE, another documentary that looks at the melding of musical cultures.
As in his Oscar-winning film, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, Neville knows how to capture the magic of performance and how to encourage professionals to speak plainly. To be sure, this loosely structured story needs a stronger outline; you’ll often wish for clarifying details on the group’s programming and its unfamiliar instruments, but then the music will play and you’ll think this film wants for nothing.