Just catching up with Scott Hicks documentary Highly Strung, which opened the Adelaide Film Festival earlier this year. Hicks has musical form, including the 1996 portrait of David Helfgott, Shine, and the acclaimed 2007 doco on Philip Glass, A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. In Highly Strung he turns his camera on the instrument rather than the player, considering the violin (and its extended family) in terms of its sound, its history, its manufacture and its potentially immense value.
At least, that’s what he sets out to do. Using a slightly strained musical metaphor he introduces a parade of characters: violin dealers and valuers; the glitzy Carpenter family of New York, who see Stradivarius as the ultimate brand; luthier Roberto Cavagnoli, who is tasked with making a copy of the 18th century Guadagnini cello bought by arts philanthropist Ulrike Klein for the Australian String Quartet; and members of the Quartet themselves.
Each vignette brings another aspect of the mystique of the violin to the fore. Joshua Bell talks about his Stradivarius and its every changing moods with almost mystical awe, while Cavagnoli walks up and down stacks of wood, knocking each piece to listen for the perfect resonance. Meanwhile, the Carpenters mostly shop for every more outrageous concert outfits, and the Australian String Quartet get on with being the custodians of a unique set of four matched Guadagnini instruments.
Hicks endeavours to make violins rather than humans the main protagonists of the film, but when the humans begin to unravel, so too does the focus. In a twist which no-one could have planned, Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache, the two violinists of the Australian String Quartet decide they no longer want to work with the viola and cellist. They give the ASQ board an ultimatum — them (viola Steven King and cellist Sharon Draper) or us. When the board chooses King and Draper to continue the ASQ brand, the Guadagnini instruments in the care of Winther and Tache are returned to the bank vault.
It’s a messy story and it turns out to be, perhaps inevitably, a messy film. One minute we’re learning about Cremona and Stradivarius and design, and the next we’re plunged into a complicated and bitter musical divorce. It’s a mess, but not a disaster — getting hijacked by real life saves a fascinating and quirky documentary from becoming worthy, and leaves us with a cliffhanger that will play out in 2017, as the ASQ launches its new line-up.