TIFF 2015: "The Music Of Strangers" Review

Silkroad Ensemble
Roger Ebert

It’s bizarre that almost no one has reviewed or talked about “The Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”—made by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, no less—in any capacity during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. What does that say about our appreciation for world music? I’m not trying to condemn anyone here, because I’d be just as guilty for not eating my cultural vegetables. Indeed, every time I brought up “The Music of Strangers” with fellow critic friends during TIFF the one conversational tidbit they had to offer was this Clickhole article

Hopefully, more people will actually watch Morgan Neville’s film, because it’s an in-depth look at a diverse group of musicians with unique origin stories. But its most insightful message is broader, bringing together their shared motivation: the very noble and ambitious mission of changing the world through music. That kind of visionary pursuit is what guides so many of the collective’s members. It’s why they wake up in the morning, why they keep making music, why they stay in a terrible, thankless profession that has only gotten worse over time. I hope this doesn’t sound too cult-ish or wishy-washy, because in the minds of these musicians, bringing positive change is the one thing that keeps them going, and that’s hard not to admire. That Neville is able to bring out these earnest confessions from so many of these musicians only makes the film’s message that much more potent. These people have asked themselves: What am I contributing to the world with my music? Am I making it better? Or am I wasting my time? 

The film also works well when it shows the individual struggles of the musicians, like Iranian Kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor’s terrible tragedy following the Iranian revolution and Iran-Iraq war, when he lost his entire family. His desire to live in Iran as a free artist simply cannot be fulfilled due to the oppressive Islamic regime, and it’s heartbreaking watching him discuss his homeland, as if it were one of the many family members he has lost. Another example is Galician bagpipe player Cristina Pato, whose impressive and thoroughly unique style enchanted the world, though she found it difficult to stay true to her roots while contributing something new and altogether different to the Silk Road Ensemble, which is based on the philosophy of incorporating a multitude of musical traditions to create something new and innovative. What makes “The Music of Strangers” so fun to watch, however, and which tempers the seriousness of its subjects, is the diverse range of performance footage at play. Some of it is archival, much of it is beautifully staged across multiple countries and environments. Neville is keenly aware of how to show the musicians’ kinetic energy onscreen, and he relies on this talent to keep the film consistently alive and moving. 

Read the rest of the review here