Antonio Stradivari was an eighteenth-century Italian violinmaker so famed for his high-quality craftsmanship that his violins are still considered the best ever. Roughly 500 of his violins–called Strads–still exist, and violinists everywhere dream of playing them. Razvan Stoica, a young violin soloist who tours Europe, is one of them. Through social media he meets American Daniel Houck. Houck claims he can build him a replica of Guarneri del Gesu’s ‘Il Cannone’, one of the most famous and valuable violins in the world; an excited Stoica accepts his offer. Houck is a young man seemingly unlikely to be considered a violinmaker. The 32-year-old Laurelville, Ohio, native rarely leaves his hometown, population 527. He is chronically underemployed and lives in dire poverty in a farmhouse with no heat in the winter. Hounded by bill collectors, Houck taught himself how to build violins; he proudly boasts his violin obsession, and his demeanour is oddly similar to actor Owen Wilson.
The world of classical music is perhaps more elitist than other genres of music. Many pioneers of British rock ‘n’ roll, growing up in an England rebuilding itself after the war, built their own instruments. Yet while they were able to join bands and make music, Houck seemingly can’t escape the trappings imposed by poverty or his possible mental illness (he takes medication for an undiagnosed bipolar disorder). Houck is an odd figure with an unrelenting focus on violinmaking so extreme that he has a tattoo of Stradivari on his calf. His behaviour–he takes his own passport photo instead of going to a shop and spending a couple of bucks–is odd. And he’s so desperate to make Stoica’s violin that at one point Houck lies to Stoica through social media, saying that the violin is almost done, despite the fact that he’s barely started.
Strad Style is, if anything, a story of hope. Director Stefan Avalos, himself a one-time violin prodigy, paints a hopeful story of an eccentric man who, through dedication, has a fleeting chance of fulfilling his dream. The opening shots of Houck making a violin are beautifully shot and composed. That’s fitting, since Stoica provides the violin music throughout the documentary, itself a sure sign of a happy ending. And hope may also be expressed by Houck’s friends and family, who support his pursuit.