Movie Review: The Music of Strangers - From Mao to Ma
The Music of Strangers (G, 91 mins) Directed by Morgan Neville ★★★½ Reviewed by James Croot.
Having investigated popular music's unsung heroes and the rivalry between Gore Vidal and William Buckley in Twenty Feet From Stardom and Best of Enemies, documentarian Morgan Neville now turns his attention towards Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Actually The Music of Strangers is more about Ma's now 17-year-old Silk Road Ensemble, which brought together an ever-expanding eclectic group of artists from around the globe (it has been described as the "Manhattan Project of music"), but it's best moments are the ones that give an intimate look into the life of a musical genius and deep-thinker. Watching a seven-year-old Ma play for JFK is fascinating and compelling, while his regrets at spending 22 years of his 35-year marriage so far ("Growing up, my son thought I worked at the airport") seem heartfelt.
Charismatic and congenial, it's easy to see why Ma has played for everyone from Presidents to Elmo and Homer Simpson.
But Neville's film wants to be more than just a portrait of a legend, it wants to show how music can engender a spirit of collaboration and change the world.
Part From Mao to Mozart sequel, part Buena Vista Social Club, it both celebrates the skills and showcases the experiences of global talents like Chinese pipa player Wu Man and Spanish, yes Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato. They talk about the challenges of keeping their roots and traditions alive via evolution.
Neville also explores how the events of September 11, 2001 nearly derailed the nascent project as xenophobia gripped America and how Ma has continued to grow it to include scientists, histories and educators.
With added commentary from contemporary luminaries like Tan Dun and John Williams, The Music of Strangers certainly makes for interesting viewing, but I just wanted a little more of their music and on the man who founded it all.