I could be a famous violin maker… if I had the energy and drive to do it.” So laments amateur violin maker Danny Houck, who lives in rural Ohio, has no training in crafting musical instruments, and isn’t even a woodworker (“but I am a sculptor,” he offers). He doesn’t seem to have much of anything except a passion for classical music and for great violins, such as the very famous ones built by Antonio Stradivari, which are among the most expensive and most storied on the planet. And now Houck has convinced hot up-and-coming European violinist Razvan Stoica — whom Houck met online — to let him make a replica of a famous violin by Guarneri del Gesu, the only significant rival to Stradivari’s legendary status.
Wait, what? A renowned violin player has agreed to buy, sight unseen and — more importantly — sound unheard an expensive musical instrument from some fanboy he met on the Internet? Something seems hinky there. But the other side of the coin is equally, well, off: Can Houck actually do what he has promised, and in time for the big concert in Amsterdam Stoica wants to play the violin at? Houck shows some of the other violins he has made to filmmaker Stefan Avalos (himself a violinist) as Avalos documents Houck’s oddball creative odyssey, but what do they sound like? (We never hear.) Does Houck even play? (We never learn.) Does he know what the merry frickin’ heck he’s doing?
I don’t think I’ve ever found myself growing so tense watching a documentary as I was with Strad Style. This is a wonderful movie, so funny and strange and human, in part because it becomes increasingly painful to watch, in the most entertainingly bittersweet way, as Houck stumbles over his own ambitions and runs smack into his own limitations. I was reminded of another terrific documentary about artistic dreams that seem bigger than the talent needed to realize them: American Movie, about a wannabe filmmaker who cannot get his shit together, creatively or otherwise. I had a dreadful feeling Houck’s violin was going to be unplayable, or never even finished, and that would be unbearable, because his many troubles and foibles aside, Houck comes across as a good person and I really liked him. Or was I watching another Catfish, the doc about how on the Internet it’s easy to pretend to be someone you’re not, and the human needs that fuel fakers? I suspected naïveté on both sides of this transaction, and perhaps malice on the European side: Was that really Stoica on the other end of that online text chat? If it was him, had Stoica been misled about Houck’s violin-making abilities? Dear god, the many ways in which this story could end in disappointment and disaster!
Strad Style just had its world premiere at Slamdance Film Festival (a sort of punk little brother to Sundance), where it won both Documentary Feature Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Documentary Feature, and well deserved those prizes are. This is an absolutely amazing portrait of a fascinating character, his story told beautifully and with enormous suspense and tenderness. I hope it gets picked up by a distributor who can give it as wide a release as possible, because Strad Style’s feel-bad, feel-weird, feel-good emotional journey is unforgettable, and I want as many people as possible to experience it.
viewed as part of Slamdance 2017