"What might happen when strangers meet?"
This was the question renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma asked himself in 2000, when he first pulled together more than 60 world-class musicians and composers for an epic classical jam session that eventually evolved into a global supergroup of sorts called the Silk Road Ensemble.
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble goes a long way — literally — in its efforts to answer that question as it tells the story of Ma and the group and their struggles to make their divergent backgrounds merge into beautiful music. Director Morgan Neville, an Oscar winner two years ago for his brilliant documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, bounds across the globe to tell the stories of these musicians hailing from places like Iran, Syria, Spain and China.
If you think a documentary about a group led by a cellist sounds dry and academic, forget it. The dramatic changes of scene and gorgeous cinematography is gripping throughout, and the passion coming through as the players discuss their lives and love of music is undeniable. This film makes a fine argument for the restorative and spiritual powers of music to overcome much of what life throws at all of us — musicians or not.
If Music of Strangers were simply a chronological document of the group's formation and eventual success, it would be more fit for PBS than as a feature film. And while it certainly contains aspects of traditional music documentaries, the stories of these performers are such that one is quickly drawn into Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor's inability to return to his homeland to visit his wife and family, or Syrian Kinan Azmeh's frustration with the world's indifference to the civil war in his country.
In Yo-Yo Ma, the film has an ideal guide into these lesser-known musicians, and the insights into his own doubts about his music that drove him to gather the Silk Road Ensemble together are particularly striking, given his pop-cultural presence and acknowledged genius.
"I'm always trying to figure out who I am and where I fit in the world," he says early in the film, and gathering these cross-cultural musicians together to see where their respective styles could meet and make sense is a more than simply a side project for him. It's part of a personal journey that clearly rekindles his passion for a life he says he simply "fell into."
As one of his friends notes in the film, Ma wants to be much more than simply a great cellist, and he wants the members of the Silk Road Ensemble to be more than among the best in the world at their instruments, too: "He's someone who wants to change the world, and collaborate with scientists and historians and educators."
The Music of Strangers and the group's music might not change the world, but they just might change the way you think about music and culture. That's particularly evident through the powerful performances Neville captures throughout the movie, sessions that show just how harmoniously instruments and people from opposite sides of the globe can sound when working together. ♦