Documentary Review: ‘Strad Style’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

We’ve all over-promised and under-delivered at some point in our lives. Yet rarely does one tilt at such a large windmill as the one Daniel Houck attempts to conquer when he sets himself the task of replicating an old master’s violin for an emerging modern star. Strad Style is a bit of a misnomer; although a phrase used by Houck, the instrument he sets out to build is instead a facsimile of Paganini’s Il Cannone (“the Cannon”), which was crafted by an equally revered contemporary of Stradivarius, Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri. Houck embraces his numerous eccentricities. His interests extend beyond lutherie to lowriders, tattoos, and candle magic. He lives frugally on a farm on the outskirts of a small Ohio town, borrowing money from friends to cover the expense of woodworking equipment while one of his cars remains at the mechanic due to unsettled bills. Houck’s main connection to the world beyond his house comes from social media. It’s through Facebook that he connects with violinist Razvan Stoica and makes the astonishingly confident offer to create a Cannone replica for a recital next summer.

Through the course of the film it becomes quite clear that Houck possesses an abundance of passion coupled with a surprising level of skill for an amateur. However, his financial situation provides no shortage of obstacles. All the best tools come second- or third-hand; the new additions are Harbor Freight’s most affordable options. Tis entire house, which goes unheated in the frigid Midwestern winter, constitutes his workshop, and we often see Houck slouched on the sofa or in his bed as he works. Depression over his situation—low income, isolation, restlessness—also takes its toll. Stress ratchets up as the calendar counts down to Stoica’s concert in Amsterdam. If Houck succeeds, it will mark his first international trip. With the deadline drawing nearer, you’re struck by the absurdity of the situation: how crazy must this professional musician be to put so much trust in a stranger, and how naïve was Houck to make such an attempt as this?

Without spoiling the outcome in too much detail, suffice to say the end result is immensely satisfying to witness. Director Stefan Avalos focuses more on how the project impacts Houck than the details of construction. Were Houck not oddly charming it would be a shortcoming, because as the violin takes shape one can plainly see the artistry behind it, yet we’re generally left to marvel at the mystery of how all those particulars came to be. As it stands, there is great satisfaction in watching Houck plow forward. Strad Style never descends into proselytizing, but the message is clear: your circumstances in life can become an excuse, or motivation to excel. One guess as to which approach Daniel Houck chooses.

His quirks might be wholly unique, but there’s a relatability to Houck and his dreams that should appeal to every viewer. Strad Style gives us the pleasure of watching those dreams unfold while reminding us of the power of passion and perseverance working in tandem, with a touch of (candle) magic at its heart.

Strad Style will be available on demand November 7 and in DVD/Blu-ray November 14.

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