Would you trust an Ohio hermit who drives a low rider and practices magick to build the violin for your next recital?
The Hollywood Reporter writes that a prize-winning Romanian soloist does just that in Stefan Avalos’ “Strad Style,” a diverting documentary that, for most of its running time, suggests the musician will regret his choice. Leaning toward the kind of check-out-this-weirdo mode that became fashionable in the 1990s, the film is ultimately more sympathetic to its strange protagonist.
While it isn’t completely satisfying, the picture has taken home jury and audience awards at Slamdance and elsewhere, and seems to have a long fest life ahead of it.
In his first documentary, Avalos (who has previously directed some low-rent thrillers) gives us less background than he should on his protagonist: Yes, Daniel Houck is clearly an interesting guy, but where does he come from? How did an unemployed, bipolar thirtysomething wind up living in this big, antique-stuffed farmhouse? And how has he established himself as a self-taught violin-maker?
However it came to pass, this violin freak (whose body is tattooed with Heifetz and Paganini portraits) has, near the movie’s beginning, come across YouTube videos of violinist Razvan Stoica, whose playing impresses him. (Stoica’s website humbly calls him “the best violinist of Europe.”) Stoica plays a Stradivarius on loan from an anonymous benefactor, but such a valuable instrument can’t be taken just anywhere. Houck thinks Stoica should try one of his own as a backup.
In a zippy primer for non-musicians in the audience, Avalos introduces us to two of history’s most celebrated luthiers: Stradivari, whose priceless instruments have made him a household name, and his rival Giuseppe Guarneri, who built Niccolo Paganini’s favorite violin, “Il Cannone Guarnerius.” Though they’ve only met on Facebook, Houck offers to make a replica of the Cannone for Stoica, who eagerly accepts. Stoica has such faith in the stranger that he commits to playing the instrument in an Amsterdam concert just a few months away.
This deadline gives “Strad Style” all the drama it needs, especially since Houck’s haphazard-seeming methods invite mishaps. He cracks valuable pieces of wood and must start over; he has a varnishing disaster; a mouse sneaks into his workspace and steals his sound post material. All the while, personal eccentricities make him seem an odd choice for this job.
Is it really possible that, though trained craftsmen have spent centuries trying to understand the secrets of the world’s great violins, Houck can make a credible start using nothing more than a blown-up photograph of the Cannone for a cut-out template? Much of the work we see would be more appropriate to movie prop-making than musicianship: Houck studies photographs of the original, chipping scars into his replica to mimic its surface and trying to match the color of its patina.
One wouldn’t think these efforts would have anything to do with the new instrument’s sonic properties, but they certainly appeal to Houck’s obsessive side. As the days slide by to Stoica’s concert — Houck, who has never traveled abroad, has agreed to bring the instrument to him personally — we can’t help but wonder if the antique-looking violin will produce a sound worth hearing.