In 2014, acclaimed documentarian Morgan Neville took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature with Twenty Feet from Stardom, a film that captured the lives of some of the world's least known yet remarkably popular back-up singers. Twenty Feet from Stardom was that rare documentary that managed to weave together both critical acclaim and popularity, though I'll confess even I was a tad surprised when it claimed the Oscar win. Neville has built a career out of producing and directing some of the best entertainment documentaries of recent years including Johnny Cash's America, Pearl Jam Twenty and a host of others.
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble is the latest in a long line of stellar documentaries from Neville, an affectionate and joy-filled documentary centered around Yo-Yo Ma, the world renowned cello great who established The Silk Road Project in 1998 as a way to promote global understanding through the arts. While there are over 50 artists who participate in The Silk Road Project, Neville for the most part focuses his lens on Yo-Yo Ma, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato, and Wu Man, a Chinese musician who introduced the world to a musical instrument called the pipa.
While it seems that a majority of Silk Road's participants are musicians, the project includes visual artists, storytellers, vocalists, composers, arrangers and dancers. The Music of Strangers tells their stories, at times quite tragic, yet places an overwhelming emphasis on the hope to be found through the arts. While two artists, Kalhor and Azmeh, have had to leave their homelands to practice their craft, many of the artists return to their homes to teach and to build bridges toward those who'd seek involvement in the arts.
The Music of Strangers is an infectious film, a film brimming with hope and spirit and joy. It is a behind-the-scenes music/arts documentary that truly feels like a behind-the-scene glimpse into the lives of these artists and their lives, their families, their homes and their crafts. At the center of it all is Yo-Yo Ma, irrepressibly beaming throughout much of the film and practically glowing as he shares this project and the journey he's shared over the past 15 years with these artists.
At its core, The Music of Strangers is a documentary about a group of artists who've united in their searches both personal and universal. It is about that eternal search for "Where do I belong?" and that equally lifelong realization that the answer is ever changing and nearly always involving a community of strangers.
The Music of Strangers is currently in theatrical release with indie distributor The Orchard and arrives in Indianapolis on July 8th. For fans of Yo-Yo Ma or those who simply believe in the power of the arts to change the world, The Music of Strangers is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen.