I have no real pressing issues with Morgan Neville’s The Music of Strangers. As documentaries go, it’s generally (and thankfully) cinematic, and everyone the film encounters is likable and bright. I even wholeheartedly agree with its general thesis that culture and art are our most important human creations, something that trumps politics every time. That being said, I still can’t get myself worked up about any aspect of The Music of Strangers. Since criticism of any kind is always subjective, it’s worth mentioning that the film will likely play better to people who enjoy documentaries and have more than a passing familiarity with the music of Yo-Yo Ma.
Since I fit within neither of these categories, I’ll readily admit that The Music of Strangers is not a film made for me. If you’re a fan of famed cellist Ma and, more specifically, his long-running Silk Road Ensemble, you’re likely to get a lot out of the film. If you’re not, you might get some something out of the film’s meditations on the intersections between art and political unrest, something that will certainly feel topical. You might even enjoy the film’s musical performances and the jaunts into different cultures. I just can’t say I, exactly, enjoyed these things, which is an unfortunate statement to make since Neville’s film — for all intents and purposes — has a kind, open heart and nothing glaringly wrong with it.
The Music of Strangers, for the most part, follows Ma, discussing in passing his early career and fame (especially for a cellist) and how dissatisfied this left the musician. In response, he began the long-running Silk Road Ensemble, a loose collective of various musicians from disparate countries. The film focuses specifically on a handful of these musicians, including China’s Wu Man and Iran’s Kayhan Kalhor, juxtaposing their music and pursuit of art with their countries’ repression of such creative outlets. The film occasionally becomes a more generalized portrait of the need for continuing cultural traditions. For example, Galician musician Cristina Pato’s challenge is less a political one and more the simple need to pass along the unique music of her classically secluded people before it’s lost to time.
As a whole, this idea of a universal ideal of art, that human connection is pure and possible through art, is a noble one. It’s certainly something I agree with. Ironically, I’m just not sure that The Music of Strangers presents it in a very artistic fashion. One of my personal peeves with documentaries in general is the over-reliance on talking heads, a trope that certainly hamstrings Neville’s film by allowing for a lot of simple exposition. There’s a lot of stating — and restating — of the film’s central ideas that feels unnatural and inorganic, a strange feeling since so much of the film wants to point to humanity’s capacity for genuine creation.
What wants to be — or at least should be — a grand celebration of life and art instead feels like an explanation of the same subjects. Fortunately, the heart of the film is so righteous that it’s hard to fault The Music of Strangers too much. And it’s worth remembering that, with the type of film this is, your mileage may vary. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.