Director Morgan Neville has made one of the most memorable music documentaries of recent times. His 2013 film 20 feet from famefor which he won an Oscar and a Grammy, chronicled the journeys of five unsung rock heroes: the backing vocalists who animated some of popular music’s biggest hits.
Neville has a long history as a bridge between sound and screen. His credits include Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story; Muddy waters cannot be satisfied and Johnny Cash’s America. He was also one of the directors of last year’s documentary The best of enemieswhich chronicles the William Buckley/Gore Vidal debates at the 1968 political conventions.
In Neville’s new project, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the director shifts his lens from intensely American musical stories to global ideas. For several years, he followed the artistic collective of master musicians and other artists from more than 20 countries, founded by the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 2000.
Earlier this week, Ma and Neville joined me at HBO headquarters in New York for a special evening to mark the release, which included a brief but beautiful performance by the cellist, a screening of the film and a live Q&A. live with the director in front of an intimate audience.
The music of strangers was a fat project. Neville has shot his subjects in six different languages, filming them in locations as far apart as China, Turkey and Iran. The film is full of brilliant performances and lavish color, but what’s edgier are the segments in which Neville focuses on certain members of the ensemble. Among them are Ma, born in Paris, raised in the United States, of Chinese descent; the deeply moving Iranian Kamancheh the virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor; the exuberant pipa Master Wu Man, from China; fiery Galician bagpipe player Cristina Pato; and talented Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. (NPR Music happened to feature each of them individually in the video performances we produced.)
Neville gives each of them the space and time to let their personal stories – full of grief and loss, as well as joy and achievement – unfold. And through these stories, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble becomes a series of investigations and explorations into larger themes, like what it means to be an immigrant.
How do you define yourself when you lose the moorings of your culture and dive into a new one? How to preserve tradition while leaving room for new ideas? How to trace his own trajectory when talent and destiny have determined his career path from childhood? And how do you endure immense, unimaginable loss – like losing all your family and closest friends in war – and find meaning and joy?
“The best thing about it for me as a filmmaker,” Neville said during our chat, “is that not only can I indulge my love of music, but music is, to me, the horse most amazing Trojan to tell any other kind of story.The best musical movies aren’t about the music…Music is just the language we speak to tell a story about the culture.