J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Slamdance ’17: Strad Style

Danny Houck is sort of the Mark Bourchardt or Henry Darger of violin-making, but this outsider luthier might just have a truly great instrument in him. The question is, will the lifelong Ohio resident finish it in time for its expected European premiere. Luthiering looks grungier than you’ve ever seen it before, but the passion is still worthy of old world Cremona in Stefan Avalos’s Strad Style (trailer here), which won both the audience and jury awards for best documentary at the 2017 Slamdance FilmFestival.

Houck never really spells it out, but from what we glean he has struggled with bi-polar disorder throughout his life. Aside from luthiering (which is mostly speculative at this point), he has no discernable source of income. Generally, he lives frugally, but he will not hesitate to purchase tools he deems necessary.

For some reason, Houck is convinced he can replicate the sound of vintage Stradivari and de Gesù violins. Admittedly, he clearly has natural talent, but he doesn’t seem to have any customers yet. However, when he makes the acquaintance of emerging Romanian superstar soloist Razvan Stoica online, Houck convinces the violinist he can deliver a “Strad” quality instrument in time for a high-profile concert in Amsterdam. Yet, it is highly uncertain whether Houck has sufficient resources and can stay in the proper head-space long enough to meet the deadline.

Regardless whether Strad Style launches Houck’s lutherie career or not, it should provide an additional boost to Stoica’s steady climb to international prominence. It might be slightly spoilery to say, but he definitely makes Houck’s work sound great. He also deserves credit for giving an unheralded self-described “nobody” such an opportunity. (Presumably, there are a lot of luthiers out there who would love to say Stoica plays their custom instruments.) In fact, he even used Houck’s violin to record the Strad Style digital EP.

Avalos certainly never whitewashes Houck’s mean living conditions, but he still manages to bring a bit of stylish flair to the proceedings. He pulls off a few wide angle pull-back shots that dramatically illustrate his subject’s rural isolation and the animated recreation of a mouse stealing Houck’s last sound-post is rather amusing. As a result, Strad Style feels like a real film and not just some edited together footage of Houck puttering about his workshop.

Frankly, Strad Style is a rather encouraging film, because we see the eccentric Houck’s devotion to music start to pay-off. Where it leads next remains uncertain, but at least it brought him and Stoica to Park City after their meeting in Amsterdam. Recommended for broad-minded classical music connoisseurs, Strad Style should have many festival screenings ahead of it, after sweeping the doc awards at this year’s Slamdance.

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