It’s ultimately unsatisfying, offering a little bit of this and a little bit of that without ever making much of an impression.
If there were awards for feel-good movies, I know what would win this year: The Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. It’s got everything: an international cast of attractive and pleasant people, lots of clips of music that won’t offend the ear, brief discussions of big issues, travelogue-like shots of the homelands of some of the featured performers, and a charismatic central character who is both an accomplished musician and an international celebrity.
The Music of Strangers is certainly skillfully put together (by Morgan Neville, who also directed the Oscar-winning Six Feet to Stardom), but it’s ultimately unsatisfying, offering a little bit of this and a little bit of that without ever making much of an impression. A mile wide and an inch deep, it’s a missed opportunity on the part of Neville to get beneath the surface and examine how these disparate musicians have found ways to work together and succeed as an ensemble.
It’s tempting to compare The Music of Strangers to From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1979), particularly since a clip from that film (the “Oh, Susannah!” sequence) is included in this one. However, a better comparison is the Edward Steichen-curated photography exhibition The Family of Man, which was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 before touring the world for eight years. Like The Family of Man, the Silk Road Ensemble strives to emphasize the commonalities among people and to be a force of unity in a world threatened by violence often fomented or justified by national and ethnic differences. All of which is well and good—I’m all for anything that can bring peace to a world too often ripped apart by strife—but the problem with such efforts is that they often paper over the unique aspects of different cultures, particularly anything that might be less than appealing to Western viewers, since that’s where most potential purchasers of the product reside.
On the plus side, The Music of Strangers features some musicians that you probably aren’t familiar with, unless you are already a fan of the Silk Road Ensemble. These include Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Syria; Wu Man, a pipa (Chinese lute) player from China; Kayhan Kalhor, a kamancheh (bowed lute) player from Iran; and Cristina Pato, a gaita (bagpipes) player from Galicia. Every one of them is a master of their craft, and there are many more who are just as good but whose names you won’t learn until the end of the film, rather like sidemen in a jazz ensemble who are only introduced at the end of a show.
The Music of Strangers is at its best when it lets the musicians do what they do best—play their music. Not every performed sequence is great (some sound like background for a movie, others like generic noodling), and some performances feature a lot of rock-band-like theatrics to gin up the excitement and get the audience involved, but enough works that it gives you a sense of why this ensemble has been successful. It’s a shame, however, that we mostly hear the music in little snippets or as background to autobiographical testimony or potted discussions of philosophical topics (like “what is the place of music in a world wracked by war?” or “what do we mean by home?”). The interview segments are mostly disappointing because they are so well-rehearsed that they are about as insightful as the typical sports interview—no one is willing to let their guard down for one minute, resulting in safe and boring statements that you’ve already heard many times before.
As a publicity piece for the Silk Road Ensemble, The Music of Strangers is not bad. The problem is that it doesn’t offer much in the way of reflection or insight, two qualities that paying customers tend to want in their documentaries. If you’re willing to be satisfied with surface and can tolerate the rather fragmented way music is presented in this film, you might well enjoy it. If not, you’ll probably feel more like the mark at a carnival, as if you are being kept at arms length and expected to be accept what you are given, and you would probably prefer to spend your movie-going dollars elsewhere. | Sarah Boslaugh