You know those videos we like to post periodically, where some driven individual makes something crazy elaborate by themselves, without instructions, be it anything from a glitter cannon prosthetic to Voltron’s flaming sword? Imagine an entire movie-length version of that, except it’s not necessarily made for the purposes of self-promotion, and you get Strad Style, which just made its debut at Slamdance 2017. The item being made in this case is a replica violin, specifically a duplicate of il Cannone Guarnerius, the violin made famous by Paganini, and built by Giuseppe Guarneri, who’s up there with Stradivari among violin aficionados. But fear not if classical music isn’t your jam; you don’t have to like or even care about actual violin music to appreciate the film, which is simply the story of a guy who nerds out about this stuff the same way you or I might obsess over comic-book movies. Come to think of it, unless you happen to be a professional cosplayer, he probably nerds out more.
Danny Houck lives in a large farmhouse somewhere in rural Ohio; he takes medicine for bipolar disorder and doesn’t like socializing much. But he loves violins and violin making, and is the type to get his favorite creators’ faces tattooed on himself, and make custom T-shirts and signs reading “Strad Style” in gangster-ish font for himself. The Strad in question is Stradivari, creator of the world-famous Stradivarius violin that many have tried and failed to duplicate. But Stradivari is more a symbol for a way of life than a plot point here, as we follow Houck’s quest to make a copy of the most famous Guarneri. He has befriended Razvan Stoica, one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary violinists, and promised to make him the Cannone replica so he can live out his dream of playing the real thing as closely as is possible. And initially, perhaps because we’ve been conditioned by nerdy DIY videos, we presume this won’t be a problem.
There’s a natural assumption going into the film that there wouldn’t be a movie if its subject somehow weren’t up to the task at hand, but as time goes on, and we watch the self-taught Houck struggle with mismatched parts, it begins to dawn on the viewer that he may not be as good as he says after all. Likewise, it may occur to you that the movie isn’t actually about the process of building–in the Seinfeldian definition, it’s more of a movie about nothing, with minor conflicts borne of everyday anxiety. But like American Movie, it’s also the story of an oddball with a dream whose personal quirks threaten to upstage his actual talent, if any.
Obviously I won’t spoil what happens, except to say that the ticking-clock element of the movie is the countdown to get the violin finished in time for an already booked trip to Europe to give the instrument to Stoica and have him play it in concert. The actual construction project isn’t the only problem: Houck’s insecurity about his thinning hair and fear of getting on a plane are among the other potential barriers to success. How he manages to even live in such a large space and stay alive doing nothing but building violins for fun is a mystery for a great deal of the movie’s running time, only casually revealed too late in the game to mention here.
Because Houck is such an introvert, not a whole lot of time is spent with anybody else on camera, so your personal reaction to him may determine how well (or not) the documentary works. For the Nerdist reader, I suspect that even if some aspects of him just make you want to yell “Get it together!” at times, you’ll see that common spark that brings us all together here: the obsessive fandom of wanting to learn as much as you possibly can about that particular thing that you like. It may have nothing to do with comics, science fiction, gadgets, cosplay, or any of our go-to topics, but make no mistake: Strad Style is a nerd movie through and through.
4 out of 5 burritos.
Images: Falco Ink
Luke Y. Thompson‘s only violin is the world’s smallest invisible one, as held by a Steve Buscemi action figure.