“THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS” My rating: B-
96 movies | MPAA rating: PG-13
That music is the universal language is one of the hoariest of cliches…which doesn’t make it any less true.
Since 2000 the Silk Road Ensemble, a band of international musicians spearheaded by classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, has been making music that defies easy description.
“The Music of Strangers,” a documentary by Morgan Neville (maker of “20 Feet from Stardom,” that lovely non-fiction film about rock’n’roll backup singers), follows this esoteric orchestra from its inception to the present and across continents (including footage shot at K.U.’s Lied Center), offering plenty of ear-catching music and along the way highlighting the lives of several of the group’s outstanding players.
The film is inspiring, sure — the personal stories of some of these musicians are painful and the music is uplifting — but “The Music of Strangers” sometimes feels a bit like an in-house promotional effort. The film doesn’t shy away from criticisms that by participating in the Silk Road project these players may be diluting the indigenous music they seek to champion, but overall a feel-good mood carries the day.
The film begins by concentration on Yo-Yo Ma, who admits that he never actually chose to go into classical music, that it just sort of happened to him and he went along. The Silk Road project gives him a chance to branch out and explore other musical idioms.
Other segments focus on four ensemble members whose lives have taken interesting turns. Spain’s Cristina Pato, who plays bagpipes native to her region, is known as “the Jimi Hendrix of the gaita” (in fact we see her tearing up the stage as a member of a rock band). She’s a live wire both on and off the stage and a champion of the traditional music of her often-overlooked region.
Wu Man is the reigning champ of the pipa, a Chinese lute, who grew up in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and felt she had to flee her country if she was to expand her world by playing with foreign musicians. Now she frequently returns to her country to encourage young people to study traditional instruments.
Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh tries to preserve the music of his native Syria while bemoaning its current woes. He is seen visiting a sprawling refugee camp where he offers art education for children living in tents and cardboard shacks.
Most heartbreaking is Kayan Kalhor, an Iranian who plays the kamachech (also known as the Persian spiked fiddle). He fled Iran after the Ayatollah’s revolution and has had repeated run-ins with the authorities. His wife still lives there but their visits are few and far between.
“The Music of Strangers” could have used more drama, but there’s no denying its positive appeal to international friendship, personal genius, and great music-making.| Robert W. Butler