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

A highly polished, musically delightful portrait.

An unlikely band of collaborators teams with Yo-Yo Ma to encourage cross-cultural connectivity.

A first-rate music film capturing a restless desire to communicate beyond the boundaries of any single idiom, The Music of Strangers watches as Yo-Yo Ma, a giant in the world of Western classical music, puts Bach and Beethoven aside to spend time with his multicultural Silk Road Ensemble. Documentarian Morgan Neville is on quite a roll here, debuting two films at TIFF while his widely praised Best of Enemies still lingers in theatrical release. Though this picture doesn't have the element of discovery that made his Twenty Feet from Stardom a box-office hit and Oscar-winner, it will play very well on HBO and is a rich enough experience to benefit from big-screen bookings.

Many viewers will be surprised to hear the cellist speak of never having really committed to music, of having simply "fallen into" the career because his gifts were so obvious in childhood. (We see footage of Leonard Bernstein introducing the prodigy on TV at age 7.) Friend John Williams observes that, for a wunderkind, the challenge is finding ways to keep one's interest up, and early in Ma's career he began addressing that question, teaming with everyone from Hot Club legend Stephane Grappelli to the acrobatic vocalist Bobby McFerrin in his search for what Bernstein called a universal musical language.

But Ma found an enduring outlet for his curiosity with the Silk Road Project, gathering virtuosos from Spain to Syria, putting practitioners of very different traditions in rooms together to see what kind of music they'd make together. Neville offers footage from the first meetings of the amorphous group, at Tanglewood in 2000, described at the time as a "Manhattan Project of music." It might have been a one-off experiment, we're told, but the events of the following year made it seem all the more important to build bridges between cultures that know little of each other.

The film spends most of its time not on a history of this project — frustratingly, we don't even get much insight into how new works are composed for the core performing group — but on a handful of its most colorful members. We meet Wu Man, master of the Chinese stringed instrument called the pipa; Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh; Iranian exile Kayhan Kalhor, who plays the bowed kamancheh; and the ebullient bagpiper Cristina Pato, "the Jimi Hendrix of Galicia."

Viewers who are as curious about music as Ma is will wish, probably, for a little more examination of the exotic instruments we encounter here — of how they work, maybe even how they evolved. But the mainstream-minded Neville is smart to focus on the players' stories, which often involve political unrest and reluctant immigration, and on following them around in the world. Kalhor's biography is most poignant: We're with him in May 2009 as he lives and teaches in Iran, telling the camera "I can't imagine moving abroad again." The next month, fallout over political protests forces him to do just that.

Woven among these personal narratives, of course, are scenes of music — from aching laments to boisterous party jams. This is not a performance film, so unfortunately we rarely hear a complete song. But the spirit of hybrid creativity is infectious enough to inspire the uninitiated to seek out the group's albums. They've made six so far — and if the onward-and-upward tone of this idealistic doc is to be believed, they're a long way from stopping.


Production company: Participant Media

Director: Morgan Neville

Producer: Caitrin Rogers

Executive producers: Diane Weyermann, Laura Freid, Jeff Skoll, Cristin Canterbury Bagnall, Julie Goldman

Director of photography: Graham Willoughby

Editors: Jason Zeldes, Helen Kearns

No rating, 95 minutes