Director Morgan Neville made one of the most memorable music documentaries in recent times. His 2013 film 20 Feet from Stardom, for which he won an Oscar and a Grammy, chronicled the paths of five undersung rock heroes: the backup singers who enlivened some of popular music's biggest hits.
Neville has a long history of bridging sound and screen. His credits include Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story; Muddy Waters Can't Be Satisfied and Johnny Cash's America. He was also one of the directors of last year's documentary Best of Enemies, which chronicled the William Buckley/Gore Vidal debates during the 1968 political conventions.
In Neville's newest project, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the director turns his lens from intensely American music stories to global ideas. Over the course of several years, he followed the artistic collective of master musicians and other artists from more than 20 countries, which was founded by the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 2000.
Earlier this week, Ma and Neville joined me at HBO's 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 with the director in front of an intimate audience.
The Music of Strangers was a big project. Neville shot his subjects in six different languages, filming them in locations as far-flung as China, Turkey and Iran. The film is full of brilliant performances and sumptuous colors, but what's more incisive are the segments in which Neville zeroes in on certain members of the ensemble. Among them are the Paris-born, American-raised Ma, of Chinese descent; the deeply soulful Iranian kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor; the exuberant pipa master Wu Man, from China; the spirited Galician bagpipe player Cristina Pato; and the talented Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. (As it happens, NPR Music has showcased each of them individually in video performances we've produced.)
Neville gives each of them the space and time to let their personal stories — full of heartbreak and loss, as well as joy and achievement — unfold. And through those 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 plunge into in a new one? How do you preserve tradition and yet make room for new ideas? How do you carve out your own trajectory when talent and fate have determined your career path from childhood onward? And how do you endure immense, unimaginable loss — such as losing your entire family and your closest friends to war — and find meaning and joy?
"The best thing about it for me as a filmmaker," Neville said during our discussion, "is that not only do I get to indulge my musical love, but that music is, to me, the most amazing Trojan horse to tell any other kind of story. The best music films are not about music … Music is just the language we're speaking to tell a story about culture."