Morgan Neville, director of the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013), didn’t set off to make a movie about Yo-Yo Ma and the healing power of music.
Although the original plan was to take a much narrower focus and make a concert documentary about Ma’s Silk Road Project, established in 1998 to explore how the arts can advance global understanding, Neville and his collaborators quickly realized that “we had a much bigger story to tell.” The result is “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” which led Neville’s crew on a five-year journey across seven countries, featuring footage with dialogue spoken in six languages. The film is receiving a theatrical run (it opened June 24 and returns Aug. 26 for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center) and will be shown on HBO later this year.
“When you see a Silk Road concert, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Neville of the international collective, which consists of more than 50 musicians, who rotate in and out, depending on the concert schedule, of the lineup and perform music of virtually every genre. The collective takes its name from the ancient network of trade routes that connected China to the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Africa. “So much history about goes into every piece. Yo-Yo has a theory about where creativity happens. When one culture meets another, there’s an intersection, and that’s where creativity happens.”
The superstar cellist, who’s the founder and artistic director of the Silk Road Project (now renamed Silkroad) and the Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is the fulcrum for the group — and for “The Music of Strangers.” Neville admits that a sort of “man crush” brought him to the project: “After meeting Yo-Yo and talking for hours about all sorts of ideas, I was ready to follow him anywhere with a camera. So ‘The Music of Strangers’ comes down to me being smitten with Yo-Yo Ma and responding to the themes he’s grappling with. As artists, we all deal with the same issues — namely, wondering how we can help make a difference in the world.”
Interspersed with concert footage are segments profiling Silk Road participants such as Chinese virtuoso Wu Man on pipa, Iranian master Kayhan Kalhor on kamancheh, Spanish-born, New York City-based Cristina Pato on Galician bagpipes and Syrian native Kinan Azmeh on clarinet. When Neville and his crew began filming in 2011, “we didn’t know exactly where the documentary was going to go,” he said. “We had a framework of a journey. We knew we wanted to cover Yo-Yo Ma’s story, the rise of Silk Road and how art can change the world. From there, we realized we had what we called our meta story. All of these artists in their careers have made a decision to take the road less traveled.”
But the common thread, so to speak, connecting all of the Silk Road artists and the project itself was the theme of empathy. “[Film critic] Roger Ebert used to say that movies are a giant empathy machine,” Neville said. “We were all really interested in the idea of exploring empathy through this movie. And so much of what Yo-Yo Ma talks about comes back to regarding music as a way of generating empathy. For instance, the film’s title, ‘The Music of Strangers,’ is a contradiction in terms. You can’t make music with people and and not know them. To me, emotion is the most important ingredient in storytelling.”
On the Silk Road site itself, this statement echoes the film’s message: “We know that music cannot stop a bullet or feed the hungry, but it can bring empathy and joy to places where they are in short supply.”
As for empathy being in short supply, the United States, a nation of immigrants, seems to be increasingly less welcoming to those from outside its borders. If Neville and his team could get, say, Donald Trump to watch “The Music of Strangers,” would it have an impact? “I come from a political journalism background,” he said, laughing. “I’ve tried to get away from telling people what to think. I’m more interested in getting people to make their own conclusions.”
Next up for Neville is his feature film debut, “A Beautiful Game,” a coming-of-age drama centering on a high-school soccer star. After directing 10 full-length documentaries, as well as dozens of TV documentaries and episodes, he’s not worried about making the leap. “I’m feeling good about it,” he said. “I’ve been making films for 20 years, so I have all kinds of amazing experience. This is just a different challenge.”
TOP: Yo-Yo Ma in a scene from the documentary “The Music of Strangers.”