Yo-Yo Ma documentary celebrates the possibilities of music

Yo-Yo Ma documentary celebrates the possibilities of music

Morgan Neville knew he had his next documentary project when he met cellist Yo-Yo Ma and they bonded over the types of questions they were asking themselves.

“It was this idea of… why am I even doing this? If I do this, it’s got to mean something, That resonated for me. As a filmmaker you’re always asking those kinds of questions,” says Neville, Oscar-winner for “Twenty Feet from Stardom” and co-director of 2015’s “Best of Enemies,” who talked about his new film in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Opening in theaters on Friday, the documentary “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” is the story of Ma’s successful multi-cultural band of musicians and instruments from all over the world.

Ma started the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000 after hitting something of a mid-life crisis; he had been a child prodigy, famous since the age of 7, and wanted to do something more significant.

He assembled musicians including Chinese pipa master Wu Man, Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Iranian-born kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, and Galacian bagpiper Cristina Pato.

Neville took on the film in 2012.

“We kinda started not knowing what the film was going to be,” says Neville. “We went to shoot a Silk Road concert for PBS. But, you see the music and only understand a tiny fraction of what informs that music. You could do a concert and get only 10 percent, or you could do a documentary and get 90 percent.”

Neville marvels at the musicians’ diversity, and how each plays a specific role in the group. At the same time, they have in common a need to explore and expand their knowledge.

“They’re all on this Joseph Campbell-type journey,” Neville says. “We even talked about Yo-Yo being Yoda!”

The movie sets its theme in motion with a beautiful, exhilarating, free outdoor concert, shot in Istanbul near the Bosphorus waterway. During the show, the camera follows the different musicians and their instruments, and revels in the sounds they make all together.

“They loved doing that,” Neville says. “When they finished performing, somebody came up to them and said, ‘Do you guys play weddings?’”

The Silk Road Ensemble initially was criticized for diluting each culture’s original music. But Neville explains that, yes, this music is full of possibility and can make a difference in the world.

“To me, culture is hard to measure as a metric,” Neville says. “It’s soft influence. It’s not economics or politics. But the thing that music has is empathy, and I feel like that’s a thing in short supply today.”

IF YOU GO
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
Starring: Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man
Directed by Morgan Neville
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes

Cristina PatoKayhan KalhorKinan AzmehMorgan NevilleMovies and TVThe Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road EnsembleWu ManYo-Yo Ma

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Quarterback Nick Mullens is expected to get his third straight start Sunday. Mullens is 46 of 73 for 538 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions in his other two starts this season. <ins>(Chris Victorio / Special to S.F. Examiner).</ins>
49ers trying to turn season around in Sunday’s prime-time faceoff with the Rams

49ers at Rams When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Where: SoFi Stadium, Inglewood TV:… Continue reading

Psilocybin magic mushrooms (Shutterstock)
‘Magic mushrooms’ moving into the mainstream

Efforts to decriminalize psychedelics could follow several different paths

Those who stick around San Francisco on long holiday weekends can enjoy a slower pace, uncrowded streets and beloved institutions like cable cars. <ins>(Kevin Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
These empty San Francisco streets: A holiday dream

We’re here because we can be, and because we have nowhere else to be

The 2020 Census has concluded taking responses sooner than expected. (Courtesy photo)
What does California have to lose if undocumented immigrants are excluded from the census?

By Kim Bojórquez The Sacramento Bee If The U.S. Supreme Court rules… Continue reading

It’s disheartening to see that Bill Graham Civic’s marquee isn’t announcing upcoming concerts. (Screenshot/Bill Graham Civic Twitter)
A cruise through The City with the ghosts of rides past

I take my time and don’t even mind the occasional traffic jams

Most Read