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      The Music of Strangers Review

      The Music of Strangers poster

      The Music of Strangers

      Kenneth Turan, Chicago Tribune

      With a documentary called "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble," there's no doubting that wonderful sounds will be in store. But that's not all that's on offer.

      For, as directed by Morgan Neville, "Strangers" turns out to be as concerned with emotion as with performance, spending much of its time investigating how so much joyous music was able to come out of exploration, disturbance, even pain.

      At the center of everything is 60-year-old cellist Ma, one of his generation's most prolific and popular classical artists, with more than 90 albums and 18 Grammy wins to his credit, a total he self-deprecatingly dismisses by saying "it's all statistics."

      "Strangers" is the story of how and why in the year 2000 this consummate musician decided to branch out into unexpected areas and create the Silk Road Ensemble, an international music collective that has produced six albums and given concerts seen by 2 million people in 33 countries. And director Neville is very much the filmmaker for the job of telling it.

      Best known for his Oscar-winning "20 Feet From Stardom," Neville has made any number of music-themed documentaries, including the Grammy-nominated trio "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story," "Muddy Waters: Can't Be Satisfied" and "Johnny Cash's America."

      As "20 Feet" and its examination of rock 'n' roll backup singers demonstrated, Neville is as expert at getting the human stories behind the songs as he is in capturing the music. Working with editors Helen Kearns and Jason Zeldes, he's also experienced enough to engagingly blend "Strangers'" numerous narrative strands, something that must have been harder to do than it looks.

      It all begins with Ma, a child prodigy now grown up who's performed for eight presidents and can be seen, in a delightful clip, upstaging Leonard Bernstein with a very serious face when he was just 7.

      Yet because he started so young, Ma, , brilliant as he was, couldn't help feeling, "I never committed to being a musician, I just fell into it." As friend and composerJohn Williams puts it, Ma faced a typical child prodigy problem: "How do you keep your interest up?"

      Making things more difficult was the toll Ma's extensive touring -- he estimates he has spent 22 of the 35 years he's been married on the road -- took on his life. "I was so anxious, I threw up before every trip," the musician reports, and his son Nicholas says he initially thought his father worked for the airport because he was always going there.

      A warm and candid presence on film, Ma talks with feeling about his search for purpose and his intention to be in control of his life. Those goals, combined with Ma's belief that creativity comes from cultures intersecting, led to an event one participant called "the Manhattan Project of music."

      That was 10 days of workshops held in 2000 at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., that Ma describes as "musicians getting together to see what happens when strangers meet." Though the collaboration was at first tentative, it was finally so satisfying that Ma determined it had to go on, and the Silk Road Ensemble was born.

      As wonderful as this music is to experience -- the open-air performance in Istanbul that starts things off is especially infectious -- "Strangers" does not shy from acknowledging that the philosophy behind this musical melding was initially criticized by some for being impure, a kind of cultural tourism.

      Helping to counterbalance that is the film's focus on a quartet of the Silk Road Ensemble's more than 20 players, mini-bios of virtuosos from all over who share an attraction for the wider world.

      One of the paradoxes that unites these players is that their participation in the ensemble has heightened their commitment to the specificity of their own musical traditions, something that has happened to Ma as well.

      "Through the process of going away he found himself at home again," says the musician's son Nicholas, and observing that process is one of this film's many joys.

      No MPAA rating.

      Running time: 1:36

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