Yo-Yo Ma’s brume of calm, carefully contained humor and self-effacing humility is the perfect sidecar to the brilliant and celebrated composer’s oeuvre. He is meditative, funny, and full of humanity and wisdom – and yet he is never pretentious. There’s something to be said for his personality. At one point, early in “The Music of Strangers”, he almost groans over the fact that he has released nearly ninety albums – the impression being that if he could apologize for his breadth of storied work, he would. It’s a harmless, relatable, and wholly retiring barb that eases audiences into his disposition.
And that is when this documentary, directed by Morgan Neville, works best: when Yo-Yo Ma is relaxed, cavalierly spinning lowbrow jokes, and reflecting, somewhat humorously, about old interviews. He is unguarded, in his element, and making music that could be misconstrued as inaccessible and unpopular seem – to contemporary audiences – as palatable fun. No easy task for Millennials hooked on Spotify curated playlists (the author of this piece is one of them).
Neville’s direction, specifically when music is being played, is effusive and joyous. The camera ducks, weaves, and spins around the musicians. It is lively, welcoming, and exciting in its uninterrupted view of the songs and instruments. During these moments, Neville captures landscapes, objects, and the raw euphoria of gatherings in a manner reminiscent of Les Blank. When the musicians stop jutting their fingers across strings, however, “The Music of Strangers” begins to feel static and placid. Almost abruptly so. The brakes are hit, and the keys are practically ripped out of the ignition and thrown into the teeth of a storm drain.
This is a problem.
The Silk Road Ensemble, of which this documentary is named after, is a collection of musicians, from all over the world, who come together under the umbrella of Yo-Yo Ma’s guidance. The cultural balance of the eclectic group is then workshopped by harmonies, humor, and understanding. It is a global retreat where fear, politics, and differences take a beat seat to a love of music. It’s a wonderful idea, one that, under the right lens, is both revealing and interesting. And yet, here, under Neville’s maudlin direction, there is a sense of exasperating self-importance.
There are quotes by T.S. Eliot being dropped to the seafloor with anchor-like indulgence, incendiary political backdrops being highlighted through fiery reveries, and claustrophobic maxims are said with steadfast sadness. The carousel of information is too ambitious, too fast, and, because of the time constraints, too skeletal. The Silk Road Ensemble is too large of a group, and their backgrounds are chopped down to near Vine-like lengths to fit everyone into the doc. This would have served better as a multi-part HBO series than a ninety-minute film.
That being said, one has to wonder if the documentary should have been made at all. You could argue that Neville demystifies what should be both mysterious and culturally astounding by adding too many footnotes to the ephemera of music. Sometimes the explanation of something important negates the importance itself. “The Music of Strangers” is too proud to be organically touching. Sad because without the posturing, public service announcement style, and “we are the world” themes, this could have been an interesting portrait of process and passion. As it stands, this is a documentary that wants to rush its emotional roots instead of letting them grow.