Stefan Avalos’ Strad Style opens with an ominous shot of the lead subject, Daniel Houck, burning what appears to be pieces of a violin in a fire, a stressful way to begin a documentary about a small-town guy attempting to make a 100 percent accurate version of arguably the most famous and expensive violin in the world, Guarneri’s Il Cannone.
Houck is a penniless farmer living in rural Ohio with lofty aspirations to become one of the world’s most prominent violin makers, a seemingly impossible task given his geographical and economical situation, but his obsession drives him to drink in all the information he can. After meeting one of his favorite contemporary violinists online, Razvan Stoica, he embarks on a journey to recreate this famed violin in just seven months time.
With no money to even keep the heat on in his home, Daniel dedicates every moment to working on the violin, motivated even more with the open invitation to bring it with him to Amsterdam so that Stoica can play it for an upcoming concert. But with one nightmare scenario after another, will Daniel even be able to finish it in time, let alone have it be acceptable enough for a world-famous violinist to play?
This is the suspenseful through line I continued asking myself as Strad Style progressed, and though the documentary is filled with oddball comedy, the driving force behind the film is the tension to discover if this guy can pull off such a monumentally difficult task.
Houck himself lends a lot to the engagement of the audience, playing the perfect underdog. This is a man who puts his craft above all else and despite having to grapple with severe social anxiety, mental illness and overdue bills, he maintains a positivity that makes it easy for us to root for him. We want to see him succeed because there’s so much stacked against him, and this makes for an extremely entertaining watch.
Supporting Daniel in his endeavours are his mother, who seems to support him the best she can, and his cousin, who is such an intriguing character that I could easily watch an entire movie about him. His randomly comparing the cost of a violin to a high-end sex doll and having a penchant for tarot card reading instantly made me want to know more about this guy and what makes him tick.
If there is one element the film is lacking it’s that it would have been nice to know more about who Daniel Houck is and what transpired in his life to bring him to this moment. We know he lives by himself on a secluded farm and that his hobbies include low-riders and violin-making, but he’s such an interesting guy; I wanted to find out more about his backstory.
Strad Style plays out like a less-exploitative version of American Movie (not to besmirch one of my favorite docs of all-time) and manages to deliver not only a successful underdog tale but a compelling character piece as well.