The slow-moving parade of clamor and stupidity that stops up Times Square might annoy New Yorkers. But late in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken's cross-cultural jam-session music doc Song of Lahore, the giddy garishness of those blocks comes to exemplify the very idea of free expression. As the Naked Cowboy butchers “Country Roads” and swivels his (not actually naked) tuchus, one of the film's heroes — part of a band of Pakistani classical musicians visiting the States to play at Lincoln Center — gushes at the contrast: “Back home the clerics won't let us breathe in peace. Here, we're enjoying ourselves! Praise God!”
Naked Cowboy: 1. Sharia law: 0.
That exuberance marks the performances at the heart of this vital, arresting film. In the opening scenes, musicians of Lahore, Pakistan, keep alive the traditions of their town and their families by playing and recording in relative secrecy in Izzat Majeed's Sachal Studios. Their technique and repertoire echo back through the centuries, and their instruments — tabla, sitar, wooden flutes, a beautiful box accordion — resemble museum pieces. But since it incorporates improvisation, their music always is engaged with the now.
Perhaps it's partially to emphasize that in-the-moment prowess that Majeed gets his players to experiment with the Western jazz that he fell in love with back when the United States dispatched performers such as Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck around the world as cultural ambassadors. Fueled by string players sawing away as if jazz was “Kashmir,” Sachal Studios' thrillingly percussive recording of Brubeck's “Take Five” went viral — and caught the attention of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Soon, an invite was extended, a concert planned and a brace of Pakistani players sent off to New York to encounter Times Square Spider-Men and a gently impatient Wynton Marsalis.
The film's first half excels in family portraiture, tracking the handing down of musical love and knowledge from one generation to the next. Things pick up in Manhattan, of course, so much so that some minor drama in rehearsals gets glossed over. The out-of-towners are jarred, at first, by Marsalis' high expectations — the concert features their band playing with Marsalis' orchestra, and they have only a couple of days to get comfortable with one another.
The Lahore crew rises to the occasion, mostly, although the sitar player gets sacked, and we're not privy, really, to what the problem is. The climactic performance is pure joy, the workhorse setlist — “Take Five,” “New Orleans Blues” — invigorated by players steeped in another tradition. Marsalis gushes afterward — and, eventually, he arranged other dates for his quintet and some Sachal players. The filmmakers wisely let the concert footage play at length, and they know to cut to what we want to see: the players themselves, amazed at the new sounds they're making.