A documentary about a backwoods dreamer from Ohio with an obsession for ‘Stradivari’ and all things violin, who, through the magic of social media, convinces a famous European concert violinist that he can make a copy of the most famous and valuable violin in the world. Fighting time, poverty, and most of all – himself – Danny Houck puts everything on the line for one shot at glory.
In the documentary “Strad Style,” we are introduced to the most unusual of subjects: a 32-year-old amateur violin maker named Danny Houck. Living off the grid in rural Ohio, Danny is an eccentric, self-taught builder of violins. He dabbles in the occult, straddles the poverty line, and spends his free time studying the techniques of the “old masters” (violin makers like the Enlightenment-era Italian Stradivari, with whom he is particularly enamored with). He is also incredibly earnest and endearing. “Strad Style” is the story of the challenge of Danny’s life: building a violin for a brilliant European soloist, Razvan Stoica.
Danny met Stoica on Facebook, after defending him from some internet trolls and sending him a friend request. This is a testament to the truly interconnected, globalized world that we live in. That a rural Ohioan without any sort of technical training or even a passport could design a custom violin for a famous European musician is one of the wonders of our age. Despite Danny’s oddities, it is impossible not to be filled with enthusiasm for his craft over the course of the film. Director Stefan Avalos does a terrific job of letting him speak for himself. It is a sight to behold to watch Danny work through the myriad problems he encounters while designing this violin, all while trying to manage it on a shoestring budget and fending off bill collectors.
“Strad Style” slowly grows in scope – I was unsure what to make of Danny at first. But as the film goes on, we meet other members of his family and see the stunning amount of precision that goes into his work. Avalos also inserts just the right amount of outside information about violin making and its illustrious history without distracting from the real focus, which is Danny and his almost year-long project. As his obsession with the project becomes deeper and deeper, so does the viewers’. This is the mark of a truly successful documentary. I did not think that any film would get me to care about violin making. I was wrong.
Additionally, “Strad Style” finds success in building suspense. When Danny books a trip to Amsterdam to deliver his violin in person to Stoica, the film begins to pick up. Will he finish it in time? Will it sound good? Does the violinist even want the violin? It’s impossible not to get emotionally invested. I was thoroughly impressed with the balancing act that Avalos pulled off. However, even though the film is shot through Danny’s eyes, it would have been nice to delve into his familial relationships a little more. His mother and cousin both appear briefly, and there are plenty of colorful characters at his goodbye party right before he leaves for Amsterdam. I felt like there was a fascinating family dynamic underpinning Danny’s lifestyle. It’s touched on a bit – he and his cousin apparently must guess their birthdays (there has to be a story there), and it is also revealed that Danny is on psychiatric medicine for bipolar disorder, which undoubtedly influenced his childhood.
This is a powerful documentary that is sure to garner attention as it makes the rounds on the film festival circuit. It is an excellent portrait of a fascinating man, and covers an opportune amount of time. “Strad Style” is a hidden gem.
“Strad Style” will premiere at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival on Saturday, January 21st