Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble (2015) Film Review
The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble
Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson
Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma is not just a player, he is a thinker whose exploration and advocation of music goes way beyond notes on a page. Similarly, Morgan Neville is anything but a straightforward documentarian. He is interested in detail and considering material as a whole so that the things that might otherwise slip by unnoticed find their way to the surface. The idea was evident in 20 Feet From Stardom, when he turned his camera away from the star performers to consider the backing singers who provide the essential textured underpinning for the songs. Here he, like Ma, goes beyond the simple pleasures of music to explore wider concepts of cultural conversation and its place in history.
This film doesn't so much go from A to B as form a back and forth dialogue with itself, so that there is a sense of circling back to ideas already mentioned and even of foreshadowing elements to come. At its heart stands Ma, perhaps still cemented in the minds of the world as a child prodigy, despite the fact that he is now 61. He has an enviable brand of cheeky spontaneity and inquisitiveness, captured in footage of the original Silk Road workshops. This gathering in 2000, saw Ma bring together musicians from across the globe to create musical dialogues that aimed to celebrate specific aspects of each player's culture while expanding the ideas through the other instruments and experiences of the fellow performers.
Damned as "cultural tourism" by some, Ma argues - and is eloquently backed up by the music that provides an almost constant, emotionally rich backdrop to the film - that it is about expanding ideas beyond borders, an aim, one might argue, that the world needs more now than ever. The enhancement of the performances by visual arts is also fascinating, such as the inclusion of jookin' street dancer Lil' Buck as Ma plays Saint-Saens' The Dying Swan or artists who create drawings inspired by the music as it is played.
Neville weaves the strands of his documentary together like the silk of its title, connecting disparate ideas to create a concept of culture that is strong, attractive and, above all, still of great use to humanity. Although artistic creativity is central to the film, neither the musicians nor Neville neglect the real world. The director focuses, in particular, on a handful of the performers, Wu Man, who plays the pipa (or Chinese lute), Syrian clarinetist (among other instruments) Kinan Azmeh, Iranian-born Kayhan Kalhor, who plays a stringed instrument known as a kamancheh, and Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato. Neville knows when to include something and when to leave it out, so explanations of each instrument are jettisoned in favour of seeing them in action and in exploring the biographical details of the musicians.
Just as their instruments strike chords together, so do their lives - although they are from very different backgrounds they also share common experiences, such as being a stranger in a new land or facing tragedy. They are also constantly questioning themselves, with Azmeh wondering what good his music is compared to someone protesting in his homeland. These thoughts give rise to one of the film's most powerful images, when Azmeh and some of the others visit a refugee camp in Jordan, as the camera pans up and we see an entire city of displaced humanity, the shock is acute. It's the mark of the gentle, thought-provoking positivity of this film that when someone notes that tragedy is part of everyone's life that it doesn't seem trite, or even that bleak, but like a persuasive appeal for greater understanding between people, no matter what their origins.Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2016