Even famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma must get bored with his job. When you’ve mastered Mozart by the age of 7, you really have to work to find new challenges. In 2000, the musician organized the Silk Road Ensemble, a collective of musicians from around the world. His objective was vague at first, but Ma imagined a transcendent meeting of minds — musical geniuses sharing their traditions and creating something fresh.
The beautifully shot, deeply philosophical documentary “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” closely examines the work of Ma and the other virtuosos in the ensemble.
“Strangers” is only superficially about music. It’s also about cultural identity; the meaning of home; the debt we owe our ancestors (and fellow humans); and the source of creativity. This comes as no surprise from director Morgan Neville, whose Academy Award-winning 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” was a surprisingly emotional meditation on backup singers.
The movie intercuts concert footage with scenes dating to the group’s earliest meetings and interviews in New York, Syria, Spain and rural China. In each of these places, we see musicians in their homelands playing instruments that may seem exotic to American eyes and ears. Spaniard Cristina Pato, for example, performs on a gaita, a traditional Galician bagpipe. She rose to pop celebrity in her native country, before coming to understand why her critics claimed she was commercializing a type of music with deep cultural roots.
How to evolve, while still paying homage to tradition? That’s a key question at the center of the film, even for expatriates like Kayhan Kalhor of Iran, who plays a stringed instrument called a kamancheh. The musician was refused permission to perform in his country last year.
“Strangers” is not all heavy, though, and is punctuated by light moments. A young man in an American guitar shop insists on hearing Chinese musician Wu Man play Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” on her pipa, a teardrop-shaped lute. As the de-facto main character, Ma is charmingly self-effacing. His enthusiasm for the music is contagious.
With all of its big questions, “The Music of Strangers” feels less focused than “20 Feet From Stardom,” sometimes to its detriment. The movie attempts to cover more ground than it can in an hour and a half.
“Strangers” offers an inspiring look at creative people from very different walks of life who nonetheless communicate beautifully with one another. They don’t need to speak a common language: Their dazzling music says it all.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 96 minutes.