Interview: 'The Music of Strangers' documentary director Morgan Neville
The latest documentary from director Morgan Neville puts the spotlight on the Silk Road Ensemble - a collective of international, master musicians from across Eurasia. Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma assembled the world music supergroup in the late '90s, incorporating traditional classical instruments alongside various region-specific instruments, such the Chinese pipa and the Armenian woodwind duduk.
"Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" (opening in select cities June 24) follows Yo-Yo Ma and several featured Silk Road Ensemble musicians - who hail from Spain, Syria, Iran and China - as they search for the meaning in creating music. (Watch the trailer) Neville is no stranger to music-centric filmmaking - he has won Grammy for his films "Muddy Waters: Can't Be Satisfied" and "Johnny Cash's America," while his 2013 celebration of background singers ("20 Feet from Stardom") won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Neville offered to chat about his new film, which had recently screened at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.
Question: What was the impulse that got you started on this documentary?
Neville: "I didn't set out to make this movie. It really started with meeting Yo-Yo and having a great conversation about music and film and life - and me being really kind of smitten and thinking 'I want to follow him with a camera.' Specifically we talked a lot about the Silk Road Project. I think I spent about two years filming little bits and thinking what the film could be - then we spent about a year-and-a-half really intensively making the film. The whole process was a four-and-a-half-year film, but there was a good two years of exploration to figure out what the film was going to be. Even then, it was a leap of faith."
Q: Music is the gateway to this movie, but the film is really more about the musicians themselves. How did you select the musicians you were going to feature?
"I always think of music as just a Trojan Horse. The best music films aren't just about music - they are about some other idea. In a way, this film is about Yo-Yo trying to figure out how music can be a tool to do something more than just be music onto itself. I think that's been his journey. He often quotes (Spanish cellist) Pablo Casals as saying "I'm a cellist third, a musician second and a human first." I think he doesn't draw his identity from being a cellist nor do I see myself as just filmmaker. We need to tell human stories and music becomes this great tool to do that.
In terms of finding the cast of characters for the film, I spent time with many musicians in the ensemble, including many who are not in the film. I felt like the characters we ended up focusing on were on a similar journey to Yo-Yo, which was really a classic hero's journey. He was coming from this tradition and deciding to leave that tradition, ultimately, it was to take the road less traveled. They had these experiences out in the world that gave them all this new knowledge and insight - and then they returned home with this new worldliness. This became the structure of the story: how we're all having our own journeys but how we're all resonating with each other's stories.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you were feeling this story out - did you have any idea this would become a globetrotting documentary?
I had zero idea, when we started making the film, that I would be in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. (Laughs) I never could have foreseen that happening. But that's what great about documentaries - as a documentary filmmaker, you have to learn how to let the story take you on a ride - and not in the other way around. It's that sense of discovery that you have to share with the audience.
Q: On the surface this is "music" documentary - as was some of your previous work. What was it that got you interested in not just documentary film making, but specifically documentaries about musicians?
I'm a musician and I am one of those people whose record collection is far too large. My early music heroes were music writers, like Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus. That's kind of what I wanted to do. What I loved about those writers - music was a way of looking at the world. As a filmmaker, it's such an amazing tool to use to draw people in and make them feel things or to remind them of things. I feel like there are many reasons I like making music films but all that being said, they have to be about more than just music.
Q: Every culture has music and most countries have their own take on film. What is about music and films that people can elementally connect with?
Music is a way of connecting with people on an emotional level. If I listen to a song by Robert Johnson or Duke Ellington, I feel like I know them in someway - even though I may have nothing in common with them. Music is so good at creating empathy and so much of what Yo-Yo wanted to do was to create empathy and understanding between radically different cultures. At the same time, Roger Ebert called films 'empathy machines.' It's about recognizing something in yourself in somebody you thought you had nothing in common with, which is what documentaries do all the time.
Q: What is the sentiment you hope audiences have after watching the movie and are there any reactions to the film that have surprised you?
People have walked away feeling energized. A woman came up to me at a screening last night and she said she had started making on a documentary 20 years ago and put it away. Now she wanted to go back and start working on it again after watching ("Music of Strangers"). (Laughs) I don't know if I would wish documentary filmmaking on my best friend or my worst enemy.
To me, the film is about investigating why culture matters. And I want people to realize that culture is not frivolous. I feel like in America, people think about the arts as 'nice' but completely nonessential. It's how we craft our education funding. It's how we thinking about in it our grant making. But when you look at musicians who have gone to jail for their art, you realize that art has real consequence - we just don't pay attention to it here. Art and culture is how we see ourselves and how we see other people. I've been fighting the same battle that Yo-Yo has been fighting - to remind people that culture is the most important question of all of them.
"The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble," which screened during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival, opens in theaters nationwide June 24. This film is rated PG-13 has a running time of 96 minutes.