Yo-Yo Ma’s ‘Bach’ cameo in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery explained

29 December 2022, 17:55 | Updated: 29 December 2022, 18:07

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The long-awaited sequel to the Oscar-nominated 2019 film ‘Knives Out’ arrived on Netflix over the Christmas weekend, and amongst its star-studded cast was a familiar face from the world of classical music...here’s why.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

This holiday season, millions of Netflix users sat down to watch the streaming giant’s latest sequel film, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, starring former 007 actor, Daniel Craig.

As expected from a multi-million dollar project, the film features a star studded cast list, and perhaps an even more impressive list of celebrity cameos, from oscar-winning actors to seasoned sports sensations.

But one face stood out in particular to classical music fans watching the murder-mystery romp. The star in question was champion of the classical cello, Yo-Yo Ma.

Ma makes his appearance in the film at just eight minutes in, crawling into shot from the right-hand-side, with a slice of pizza in hand rather than his usual cello.

If this sounds more like a fever dream than a scene from a popular Netflix film franchise, see the screenshot below for yourself, and read on to understand exactly why Ma’s cameo was a necessary educational – if perhaps unexpected – addition to the film.

Read more: Yo-Yo Ma opens JFK exhibition, 60 years after he performed as a child for the late President

The legendary cellist played a small but important part in the first 8 minutes of the new Netflix mystery film
The legendary cellist played a small but important part in the first 8 minutes of the new Netflix mystery film. Picture: Netflix

Why does Yo-Yo Ma appear in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery?

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the first 10 minutes of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

The 67-year-old American cellist first appears on screen at almost exactly eight minutes into the film. In the scene, a group of five characters – Claire, Lionel, Birdie, Peg, and Duke – are attempting to open a puzzle box sent to them by their eccentric billionaire friend, Miles. All of the characters, bar Birdie and Peg, are in different places from each other, and are communicating via a group call.

To open the box, the group have to solve a variety of puzzles; after solving the first three of these, a melody begins playing from the box. Birdie, who is at a party with Peg, confidently announces she will ‘Shazam’ (referencing a music app that identifies songs by listening to them) the song to find out what it is.

However before Birdie can find out what the tune is, Ma – seemingly a guest at the party – enters from the right-hand-side of the screen, to provide his expertise.

Read more: Why musicians have all the skills to be the best spies and puzzle-solvers

“Hey,” says Ma as he enters, “this is Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor”, immediately identifying the melody playing from Miles’ puzzle box.

Peg questions, “are you sure?”, to which Ma nods confidently and remarks, “yeah!”.

Ma is perhaps most well-known for his performances of J.S. Bach’s cello suites, so it’s very likely that the well-educated musician would recognise the fugue’s melody, even when it was being played over loud party music. The performance of the Little Fugue heard here is an arrangement by Brandon Frankenfield, written for music box.

Despite no further prompts from the main characters, Ma continues with a very helpful follow-up to his identification, explaining, “so a fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune.

“And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change and turns into a beautiful new structure.”

This explanation from Ma helps the five introduced characters solve the next puzzle, and very soon after, the box opens to reveal an invitation from Miles to his private island, where the majority of the rest of the film takes place.

Read more: Jenna Ortega learned to play Bach cello suites for hit Netflix series ‘Wednesday’

The opening of Miles’ invitation isn’t the only time we hear the haunting Bach fugue during the 2022 murder-mystery film.

Before we see any characters on screen, the first thing the viewer hears before the start of the film are the first notes of Bach’s Fugue In G Minor BWV 578 performed by the late Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva.

Nikolayeva’s recording returns for a second time half-way through the film, when Daniel Craig’s character, Benoit Blanc is visited by another main character, Helen, played by American singer Janelle Monáe.

Read more: All 24 James Bond theme songs ranked from worst to best, based on musical merit

From L to R; Clarie, Peg, Birdie, Yo-Yo Ma with his slice of pizza, and Lionel
From L to R; Clarie, Peg, Birdie, Yo-Yo Ma with his slice of pizza, and Lionel. Picture: Netflix

While we hear the Bach fugue three times throughout the film, we only get the one scene with Ma and his slice of pizza co-star.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequently had to abide by a number of restrictions.

This meant Ma’s cameo was actually not filmed in the middle of a busy upscale party, but by himself in front of a green screen... talking to a tennis ball.

The film’s director, Rian Johnson, told INSIDER that filming the shot was a very difficult task, especially for a non-actor such as Ma, who presumably, has never been directed to talk to a tennis ball before.

During recording the legendary cellist reportedly made a few adjustments to his Bach explanation and tweaked the director’s dialogue – a sign of a true musical scholar.

Which other celebrities have cameos in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery?

Halfway through the film, Craig’s character, Benoit Blanc is seen having a video call with four people who are playing the popular online game, Among Us.

Renowned Broadway composer, the late Stephen Sondheim, appears in the top left of the call, and other notable callers include American actress Natasha Lyonne (top right), the late actress and singer Dame Angela Lansbury (bottom left), and former professional basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (bottom right).

Since both Sondheim and Lansbury passed before the film reached Netflix in December 2022, their appearances have taken on a greater meaning than perhaps was originally intended.

Writer and director of Glass Onion Rian Johnson told the New York Times said that he wanted the appearances from Sondheim and Lansbury in his film to stand as a tribute to the two artistic greats.

Read more: Jamie Bernstein: ‘Sondheim was like an uncle’ and West Side Story a ‘fourth sibling’

Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t the only legendary musician to make an appearance...
Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t the only legendary musician to make an appearance... Picture: Netflix

In the original Knives Out film released on Netflix in 2019, Johnson made indirect references to works by both of these late artists.

Lansbury famously starred in the American crime drama television series Murder, she wrote as the character Jessica Fletcher, a mystery author and amateur detective. A Spanish dubbed episode of the show (season 4, episode 12), plays during the first Knives Out film, and is watched by the mother of ‘Marta’, one of the main characters.

The reference to Sondheim’s work in the first Knives Out film is equally easy to miss. During a tense moment involving the arrival of ambulances outside of a crime scene, Craig’s character is comically distracted from the proceedings as he has headphones on and is singing loudly along to a song.

The song in question? ‘Losing my Mind’, from Sondheim’s 1971 musical, Follies.

Read more: Lin-Manuel Miranda fronts chorus of Broadway stars in Times Square tribute to Stephen Sondheim

Johnson’s admiration for these two artists is clear from his previous references to their work, so his desire to have both Sondheim and Lansbury involved in this sequel makes sense.

Despite neither Sondheim or Lansbury getting to watch their parts within the wider film, Johnson added in the New York Times that he hoped, “they would have enjoyed the little scene and gotten a laugh out of it.”

Johnson reminisces that it felt “really nice to tell them that I wouldn’t be here doing this if it weren’t for them”. Despite Glass Onion being the only opportunity the 49-year-old director had to work with the late stars, he learned that for, “every moment you get with somebody that you respect, [you must savour] that time, and put yourself in that situation as often as possible.”

Alongside these two musical minded greats, later on-screen cameos in Glass Onion come from stars of screen and sport, including American actor Ethan Hawke, English actor Hugh Grant, and professional tennis champion Serena Williams.

American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt also provides the voice of the hourly clock chime which reverberates around the private island where most of the film takes place.

Who wrote the score for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery?

The music for the second Knives Out film was written by director Rian Johnson’s cousin and long-time collaborator, Nathan Johnson.

Similarly to the filming, the recording of the music took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the 70-piece orchestral score was performed under strict restrictions; this meant the orchestra had to be recorded separately in their sections at Abbey Road Studios in London, and the full score was only able to come together in post production.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is available to watch on Netflix now.