Listen to This: 'The Music of Strangers' is an emotional tour de force

What begins as a documentary on a group of myriad musicians becomes an analysis of the human condition as a whole.

In the very first shot of “The Music of Strangers” we see internationally acclaimed musician Yo-Yo Ma enter a room with his instrument, then look at the camera and say, “This is my cello. Have you ever seen one before?”

Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville’s film then continues to weave the stories of the members of the Silk Road Ensemble — a band of musicians from around the globe started by Yo-Yo Ma — together in a beautiful way that examines the role of music and the arts alongside identity, conflict and tragedy.

Quickly, the audience discovers that Yo-Yo Ma might be the most likeable, hilarious and relatable virtuoso on the planet (yes, he even makes a fart joke). He describes his inner conflict when he says, “I’m always trying to figure out at some level who I am and how I fit into the world, which is something I think I share with 7 billion other people.” This question — the role of the arts and culture in the world as a whole — is one the whole film follows.

The documentary profiles several of the Silk Road Ensemble musicians, who went through their own incredible journey of mastering an instrument, travelling abroad and hoping to find out their role in the world. “The Music of Strangers” is about more than music; it’s about the human condition. It’s about how one continues life after tragedy, how one defines “home” and how one determines their own cultural identity.

The mission of the traveling musicians was to combine Western and Eastern musical tradition into one ensemble. Their instruments range from Yo-Yo Ma’s cello to Iranian string instrument kamancheh to the Chinese pipa. While the combination is unusual, there is never a moment when the audience questions it. An immersive musical number on the streets of a European town is one of the first things viewers see, guaranteeing that you’ll have chills from the start.

The soundtrack is, expectedly, one of the strongest parts of the film. Music from the Silk Road Ensemble members themselves provides an emotional backdrop for their own stories. However, the soundtrack is more than just background; it’s an immersive and incredibly significant part of the film. Neville himself said at the director Q&A after the film that “music is not a wallpaper,” and this sentiment shows. The film will not be the same without its music — it carries you from story to story, and is, in a way, part of those stories.

One of the most stunning examples of this is during a scene in which Kinan Azmeh, clarinet player for the ensemble and former resident of Damascus, describes his experience with the Syrian Civil War. With violence and war in the backyard of his home, he wonders why he’s a musician and why he matters compared to someone on the streets, fighting for their rights. The film plays a duet of Azmeh and Ma over scenes of the war in Syria, and that juxtaposition says more than words can. When Azmeh returns to teach children in Syrian refugee camps how to play wind instruments like his own, this question of the arts’ role is profoundly answered.

“The Music of Strangers” is more than just a documentary, it’s a concert and a world tour. Shot in nine countries and with seven languages, it’s a cultural experience in itself. One of the Silk Road Ensemble members summed up the importance of cultural exchange when they said in the film, “We don’t speak perfect English or perfect Chinese or perfect Persian, but we speak perfect music.”

The documentary is a must-see for any musician or music lover, but also for anyone who has experienced the human conflicts of identity, tragedy, culture and their role in the world. The incredible stories of these musicians are woven together along with the notes they play, and you’re certain to get chills throughout.

MOVE gives “The Music of Strangers” five out of five stars.

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