Frustrating behind-the-scenes concert doc The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble makes accomplished musicians look like nervous suitors at a manic speed-dating meetup. Five members of Ma's 59-piece group, including Iranian kamancheh composer Kayhan Kalhor and Chinese pipa expert Wu Man, briefly introduce themselves to viewers by explaining why they joined Ma's cross-cultural project. Then these artists explain why preserving their respective cultural traditions matters to them. Spanish gaita player Cristina Pato wants to share vibrant but relatively obscure Galician customs, while Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh uses his art to raise awareness of his country's ongoing civil war.
But soon after that, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) makes Ma's loved ones and colleagues defensively repeat their respective motives rather than develop them further. Instead of asking Ma to dig deeper into the cellist's fascination with Leonard Bernstein's search for a "shared universal language," Neville shows Ma repeatedly explaining how he feels about his group being criticized for "cultural tourism."
Over-edited concert footage also only hints at what makes Ma's Silk Road Project such an exciting combination of different styles of music. Neville briefly showcases individual musicians, but never sticks with them long enough to highlight their skills. He also unconvincingly emphasizes the music's energizing effect through monotonous reaction shots of Ma's bandmates appreciating each other's music when he could be accentuating idiosyncratic, well-timed performances through extended concert footage. The Music of Strangers is consequently not bad as an introduction to a group, but a lousy portrait of its members.