There is a moment early on in director Morgan Neville’s new touching, incredible documentary, “The Music of Strangers,” that perhaps fully encompasses the theme of this movie. It’s a beautiful scene, seeing people of diverse backgrounds and cultures meet for the first time to perform music together. And though language is shown to be a communication barrier between them, they figure how to arrange their different instruments to create more than symphonic composition; they achieve a certain kind of empathy and understanding. A certain kind of peace.
In “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” Neville captures the story of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and how he brought people of different cultures and backgrounds together to perform as one ensemble and through one, shared language: music.
This attempt, of course, is The Silk Road Project, and the band leader behind it is famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma–a man who, for all of his awards, accomplishments, and esteem, found himself driven to search beyond technical mastery for a deeper meaning in his life’s pursuit of music.
And so, in 2000, the virtuoso held a retreat to bring a curated group of international musicians together who would later perform as The Silk Road Ensemble. Brilliantly talented musicians including Kinan Azmeh, Keyhan Kalhor, Cristina Palo, and Wu Man each play instruments specific to their culture and region. They show that, though coming from different places and with different musical stylings, they can create beautiful music together.
In “Strangers,” director Morgan Neville returns to similar themes that earned him an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature with his 2013 film, “20 Feet From Stardom”– a doc that also features humans expressing themselves through the performance of music. Once again, Neville shows his deep interest in highlighting the one’s connection to expression, affirmation, and relationship with music.
The movie contains interviews from all of its principle musicians who talk about their different backstories and struggles that have caused conflict in their home countries. When the story of The Silk Road Ensemble reaches its end, the documentary shifts to touch on a number of current political issues, such as the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which makes for a somber and empathetic takeaway.
If you are looking for an incredibly performed and photographed live music movie, or looking for a story about people of different cultures coming together to play and share in their pursuit of art, or even just to hear Yo-Yo Ma crack wise and funny one-liners, “The Music of Strangers” does a fantastic job of capturing not just the music, but the heart that unites us all.
“The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 96 min.