The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Morgan Neville

Courtesy of TIFF

BY Matthew RitchiePublished Sep 22, 2015

Music is a powerful medium with the ability to unite people from even the most disparate socio-political backgrounds, ideologies and countries. That's the underlying message in 20 Feet from Stardom director Morgan Neville's latest feature, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, a documentary that examines the multi-generational, multi-ethnic musical supergroup he created that took shape in the aftermath of 9/11, and how their music and positive message continues to shape the world around them.
Much like Neville's other recent music documentary (and 2015 TIFF selection), Keith Richards: Under the Influence, The Music of Strangers is a fairly straightforward affair, albeit one that is shot beautifully and sounds even better. The film describes Ma's place and importance in the history of American music and then charts the group's rise as performers — together and separate — throughout the aughts and the results from their forays to far off locales, all in the name of peace and harmony (literally and figuratively).
One not need be a fan of classical or world music to feel the film's impact, though. Although overly sentimental and optimistic at times (it's hard to imagine how sharing recorders and other instruments with children could ease the pain of displacement and persecution, as occurs in one scene near the end of the film), The Music of Strangers is a movie that ultimately means well.
It's filmed in a world filled with pain and suffering, but set in what seems like an alternate universe in which music's unifying power can conquer all evils. It's a nice idea, even if it seems a little like it's presenting a future filled with fiction rather than fact (scenes involving performers talking about their feelings about the unrest in Syria and Iran, as well as their family members still living overseas, feels particularly prescient, and like there's little hope in sight), but The Music of Strangers is a thought-provoking and powerful feature. Much like the music, it doesn't contain all the answers, but at least it starts a conversation that more musicians should be having.
(The Orchard)

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