I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Oh my god, I so needed this movie right now. And you do too: it is a wonderful respite in our divided times. Let veteran music documentarian Morgan Neville — he made the amazing 20 Feet from Stardom — introduce you to the Silk Road Ensemble. They are a sort of supergroup of musicians from countries along that ancient trading route who play traditional instruments — from different traditions, mind — in modern arrangements to produce gorgeous, lush music unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. (You get a lot of it in the film, and then you will want to instantly buy all their albums, because you Will. Need. More.)
You probably have at least already heard of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who started this group in 2000, but you will learn things about him that you never knew before: the contrast between his public reputation as a perfect, can’t-miss prodigy is hilariously contrasted with his self-doubt, self-deprecation, and secret flair for winging it. And then you will meet Wu Man, from China; Kinan Azmeh, from Syria; Kayhan Kalhor, from Iran; and Cristina Pato, from Spain. (The group is much larger than this, but the film focuses on these five.) All live in the US now, and all have astonishing stories to tell about the struggles of being an immigrant, as well as the things you learn when you emigrate. (Ma is kind of a double immigrant: his Chinese father moved first to Paris, where Ma was born, and then the family moved to the US.)
But this is why you need this movie now: The Music of Strangers celebrates difference as a beautiful thing vitally necessary to making great art, and for making a better world for everyone. Creativity springs from, it is convincingly argued here, the intersection of cultures, and that creativity is, further, vitally necessary to surviving precisely the sort of turmoil the whole world is convulsing with right now. (Man survived China’s Cultural Revolution and Kalhor Iran’s Islamic Revolution through their music.) The power of music, Azmeh notes — with his Syria smack in the middle of an enormous collapse — may not be able to stop a bullet or feed a child, but it has the power to carry on a culture in a dangerous and chaotic world, to remind us what we’re fighting for. The age-old question of “What purpose art?” gets a definitive answer here: It is everything. And when different cultures meet, when traditions clash, the best way through that is to blend them to make new traditions for everyone. The Music of Strangers is a party in support of multiculturalism as the only way forward for us all. And you can dance to it, too.