Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Scott Hicks.
“A quartet is a private thing,” says Stephen King, a member of the renowned Australian String Quartet. But in this documentary from director Scott Hicks (best known for his dramas like the AFI and Oscar winning Shine and Snow Falling On Cedars, and the bland Nicholas Sparks romance The Lucky One, etc) it is no longer private. The quartet is laid bare here in a film that will mainly appeal to loves of fine classical music.
Hicks began the documentary intending to look at the latest incarnation of the acclaimed Adelaide-based quartet, but he was on the scene when it imploded due to internal tensions and personal dramas. The film then becomes and examination of the dynamics of the group. The film is full of personal dramas, and is rich with themes about obsession, passion, personalities and the clash of egos, history, and of course music.
The film is structured around a number of talking heads interviews that provide some context and insight, mixed with some footage of the quartet performing, and we watch as it all falls apart. It’s fascinating stuff, akin to watching a car crash in slow motion.
But Hicks also crams in a number of diversions to pad out the material. Thus we get a trip to the picturesque town of Cremona, in Italy,and watch luthier Roberto Cavagnoli carefully construct a violin. We see him choose the wood, and he talks us through the complex process. We also get a look at some expensive violins, created by 18th century craftsman G B Guadagnini and worth over $1 million, which are stored in banks vaults and are only brought out to be played during performances. While everybody has probably heard of Stradavarius, Guadagnini remains a lesser known craftsman of violins.
And in a parallel narrative strand we also meet the Carpenter family from New York, three siblings who are members of a string quartet, who describe themselves as “the Kardashians of the string world,” and we get to sample their lavish and extravagant lifestyle.
All of these subplots gives the film a slightly unfocused feel, as if much of it is made up of disparate elements loosely linked together by vague thematic threads.
Highly Strung is something of a passion project for Hicks, who previously made the 2007 documentary Glass: A Portrait Of Philip Glass In Twelve Parts, about the composer Philip Glass, but it also shares a few thematic similarities. Hicks structures the wide-ranging documentary like a piece of music itself, with various movements and pacing that slowly builds to a crescendo. Highly Strung opened the recent Adelaide Film Festival to alargely parochial audience. This is the type of documentary that will do well on the festival or art house circuit, and it will also appeal to music lovers.