A real meller of a music documentary, the aptly titled “Highly Strung” follows the volatile trajectories of the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) and the legendary Guadagnini instruments in their custody, revealing how the world of classical music can be as stormy as rock ‘n’ roll. Shifting focus among his subjects with a lively pizzicato touch, Aussie helmer Scott Hicks (“Shine”) explores how the handicraft, patronage and commodification of art have evolved in contempo society. While highbrow critics and pundits of the Wiseman school may fume at the docu’s loose structure and arguably loaded angle, this is juicy entertainment for a general audience and should hit the right chord with any family-friendly or educational channel.
Not only does Hicks’ most celebrated work, “Shine” (1996), center on a pianist, but he’s also helmed several documentaries on musicians from composer Philip Glass to the rock band INXS. So it comes as no surprise that Hicks would be drawn to the subject, which he engages with spontaneity and humor, keeping the narrative at a bright, allegro pace and dismantling much of the stiff decorum associated with classical music.
The Adelaide-based ASQ is Oz’s only full-time quartet and has been going for 30 years. When Hicks started shooting in 2013, it has just formed its eighth configuration with a new team comprising violinists Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache, violist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Draper. The new partnership is creating much buzz, first with Winther and Tache’s whirlwind dating and wedding, then most significantly through the decision of arts patron Ulrike Klein to gift the quartet with the only matched set of Guadagnini instruments.
While it’s common and natural for players to take center stage in films about music, it’s the instruments that command attention in this docu. Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786) is regarded as the third greatest maker of stringed instruments after Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri “Del Gesu.”
To hear experts opine about these works of peerless craftsmanship, the film crew’s itinerary includes New York and various European cities. Whether it’s Simon Morris, director of London violin dealer J. & A. Beare offering his erudite knowledge on the instruments’ history and performance, or renowned conductor and violinist Joshua Bell candidly describing his relationship with his Stradivarius (though he surprisingly skips over the famous story of its theft, recovery and purchase), the knowledge imparted is neither daunting nor turgid for musical laymen, thanks to deft, racy editing by Sean Lahiff and Scott Gray Ase.
The science and soul of a musical instrument are explored through Roberto Cavagnoli, an Italian luthier commissioned by Klein to make a cello based exactly on the Guadagnini she bought for Draper. As he hikes up the same forest where Guadagnini and Stradivari sourced their wood, literally smelling out the perfect tree, he looks no less pious than knights in search of the Holy Grail. It’s pure pleasure to watch him in his Cremona workshop, perched over the sound box with a flowing mane and scorching gaze, tenderly caressing the wood shavings. When he points out how an infinitesimal difference in wood pattern would alter its timbre, he epitomizes the acme of artisanal tradition.
For hilariously jarring effect, scenes of Cavagnoli working alone in rapt silence are dramatically crosscut with the loquacious Carpenters (no relation to Karen and Richard) — an unabashedly mercantile breed of New York violinist-siblings who claim to have patented the Stradivarius brand (it’s never explained how). Calling themselves “Kardashians of the stringed world,” their fashion sense and brash showmanship are more akin to Liberace. Scenes of them flogging their wares to a hedge fund manager or hard-selling to De Beers the crossover concept of diamond-encrusted Strads play to the galley as grotesque caricatures of American entrepreneurship. While it’s blackly comical to show them reeling off astronomical figures that highlight the instruments’ monetary worth, the film doesn’t offer analysis of their business model.
Meanwhile, members of the ASQ weave in and out of the narrative, reflecting on their symbiotic relationship with the Guadagninis. Though they don’t quite manage to articulate it in words, auds can experience it in some sublime scenes when they perform, as when Draper flies to Italy to test the finished cello made by Cavagnoli. By the time the players return to the spotlight a year later, they are in the throes of a painful breakup that pans out like “The Last Quartet,” only less amicable. While citing “artistic differences,” Winther is most verbal about his impetus to play out of the box and his growing restlessness within the ensemble.
It’s grist for high drama, albeit heartbreaking, when Winther and Tache return their violins (almost like losing child custody). That said, the subjects seem acutely aware of the presence of cameras and crew, which perhaps accounts for the muffled responses. While the film hardly gets to the bottom of the ASQ’s rift, some viewers may be led by what they see to pass judgement — with King presenting himself as a down-to-earth family man, whereas Winther emerges as the prodigy/enfant terrible insisting on his own artistic vision.
The motley subjects and figures provide the docu with richness of content, yet tonally, they’re like movements from several concertos, and don’t dovetail neatly into a coherent theme; in fact, there’s considerable periphery material that could do with a trim. A case in point is the generous screentime accorded Ulrike Klein, whose childhood trauma and romantic tribulations have a tenuous place in the storyline. References to Jurlique, the skincare brand she co-founded in South Australia also is a tad too promotional.
Tech credits are fine for the moderate budget. As expected of such a subject, the score features an eclectic collection of solo and ensemble perfs by the ASQ as well as other musicians.