The Music of Strangers (2015)

88 The Music of Strangers

Documentaries exist to document truths and a great documentary conveys a living journey where characters and events lead the story rather than the other way around. The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (2015) is a truly great documentary of inspirational musical bravado, authenticity and humanity. What may appear to be a biographical film about one of the planet’s most famous cellists is actually a complex multi-layered conversation about the philosophy of music and its power to dissolve cultural boundaries.

Yo-Yo Ma was a child prodigy and has always been a cello superstar without ever actually deciding to be a musician. After almost half a century of immersion in a world of fame and musical accomplishment, Yo-Yo came to question who he was and what music meant. He reasoned that the answer lay beyond his existing cultural reach so he gathered outstanding musicians from different backgrounds to fuse musical styles and traditions in new harmonic synergies. In exploring his journey, the film enters diverse musical cultures through the eyes and words of different musicians, many having experienced homeland tragedy. A variety of unique traditional instruments are heard in both their countries of origin and in the melting pot of the Silk Road Ensemble with musical styles borrowed from genres as diverse as hard rock, folk, hip-hop, jazz and classical. The cinematography is brilliant and viscerally engaging. One of the more memorable scenes is a hip-hop ballet dancer in blue jeans and sneakers imitating an awakening swan with movement so fluid you’d swear he was skating on ice to the hauntingly beautiful sounds of Yo-Yo’s cello.

Unscripted narration by many voices provides a kind of freeform improvisation that harmonises with the joyful highs and mournful lows of exotic music. But words only add another layer of narrative to the images and sounds that are this film’s real voice. Filmed over four years and across eight countries, the Ensemble has progressed from experimentation to a semi-permanent consortium of 50 performers that has produced nine albums, won 16 Grammy awards and has been heard by millions across the globe. The film could have simply glorified Yo-Yo but it aims for higher ground. It’s about the role of music in self-discovery and its power to create meaning, incite emotion, and bridge cultural divides. It is a film that will leave you elated.


Director: Morgan Neville