***1/2 (out of five)
After five feature films, Scott Hicks had a monstrous world-wide hit with the seminal Australian feature film Shine in 1996 and went “straight” to Hollywood, making such films as Snow Falling On Cedars, Hearts In Atlantis, No Reservations and The Lucky One. But he’s always made films about art and music, including documentaries on INXS and Philip Glass. His new feature documentary Highly Strung is not so much about the art of playing the violin so much as the violin itself, not only as instrument but as object of lust, financial speculation and glamour.
The film follows the shenanagins – and that word is quite deliberate – of the members of the Australian String Quartet, based in Adelaide, leading up to and during a period of their recent history when they (a) took on new members and (b) managed to attain the goal of owning – and thus being able to play together – two violins, a viola and a cello, all made by the Italian master Guadagnini.
Hicks was there at the right time and place to capture some truly weird and remarkable twists and turns amongst the ensemble. As they say, “you couldn’t make this stuff up”, partly because the motivations of the characters are so mysterious – indeed unfathomable – wrapped up in ego and petulance but also the weird vibration of genius. It’s compelling, occasionally jaw-dropping stuff.
There is also a contrasting portrait of the Carpenters, a Manhattan-based trio who run their ensemble like a corporation. To the Australian mind-set, their shenanagins may be even more jaw-dropping. Suffice to say, they’re louder and more colourful than the ASQ in every way, except, perhaps, a good one.
You don’t need to have any appreciation for classical music or the violin itself to love this film. My only quibble was with the editing – I found the whole thing rather oddly structured, especially the final fifteen minutes or so. It’s a terrific story, but perhaps with a slightly different editorial approach it could have been an absolutely thrilling one.
Needless to say, the music is sublime.