This film, which took home the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Prize at the recent Slamdance Film Festival, centers on someone who, at another time in history, might have faded away unnoticed. The difference is that Danny Houck, an amateur violinmaker and enthusiast living in the Ohio countryside, exists during the Age of the Internet. So instead, while surfing on social media, he ends up defending a real-life concert violinist against an Internet troll, and then the musician befriends Houck and asks if he can build a replica of the world’s most coveted violin: Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri’s Il Cannone. Naturally, Houck says yes.
Inspiring and surprisingly moving, Strad Style follows the main subject as he undertakes this most audacious of feats while struggling against obstacles from without and within. Houck doesn’t have the funds to try constructing too many violins, and he also lives in an unheated house where the winters are especially harsh on wooden instruments. On the personal side, he has trouble staying focused, which might have something to do with his previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder. As if all that weren’t enough, he has occasional bouts of self-doubt over whether his skills are up to the task at hand.
After the opening scene shows a haggard-looking Houck eight months into the project, the film leaps backwards in time, and the rest of the narrative unfolds with a sense of immediacy. We never know until the very end whether he succeeds in copying Il Cannone, but director Stefan Avalos and his team are present at every step of the journey, which includes all kinds of challenges that force Houck to improvise, since starting over from scratch isn’t a financial option. It’s clear early on how much this opportunity means to Houck, and how meager his resources are. Avalos ratchets up the tension with title cards constantly reminding us how many days are left until delivery.
Much of the movie’s appeal comes from Houck himself, who as documentary subjects go, offers something relatively fresh. He is attempting an ancient and illustrious trade but going about it like a maverick, melding modern technology with his own awe-inspiring attention to detail. For example, to replicate all of the scratches and imperfections in the original Il Cannone, Houck prints out a life-sized photographic image of the original and then copies the flaws one at a time. While he emulates rather than attempting to forge his own path, one could argue that’s not unlike how most young artists develop. What’s the cliché, first you learn to play the notes and then the music?
When we first meet Houck, he proudly shows off his homemade motorcycle jacket featuring the words “Strad Style” (a reference to Antonio Stradivari, another great violinmaker), which he emblazoned onto it himself. The longer viewers spend with him, the more it becomes clear that was just the tip of the iceberg as far as his eccentricities. Over the course of getting to know Houck intimately, the filmmakers do not retreat from depicting him in a less-than-ideal light, as he does occasionally explode in frustration at his family. But the juxtaposition of him against his blood relatives makes the former seem all the more like an outlier.
Stylistically, Avalos directs in a relatively straightforward manner, his voice occasionally chiming in from off screen to ask questions of his subjects. There aren’t many instances that feel particularly innovative, although the film does have a brief moment in which something goes missing from Houck’s workshop and he becomes convinced that a mouse took it. Avalos indulges Houck by cutting to a dramatic reenactment of the crime (complete with CGI rodent), as if to illustrate the inner workings of Houck’s brain and how easily he can become obsessed by minutiae.
Ultimately, Strad Style is a movie about the importance of passion and perseverance and the power of the Internet to bring life-changing opportunities. It’s also something of a coming-of-age story, even if Houck is technically an adult already; his horizons broaden, and he seemingly becomes more aware of his own destiny. The coda is especially powerful as Houck finds a place where he can finally compare his abilities against those of his hero. By then, it’s clear that this is where the film’s dramatic arc has been moving toward all along: not the birth of a star but of a master craftsman.