Scott Hicks cemented his name on the film scene when he directed Geoffrey Rush as the manic pianist David Helfgott in the Oscar winning Shine. His career over the years has been a varied mix of both film and documentary which includes simple Hollywood affairs like No Reservations, documentaries about both Philip Glass and INXS and even a Nicholas Sparks adaptation with the gooey sun-dappled likes of The Lucky One.
Highly Strung brings him back to his talent for musical films with this documentary about the ill-fated season of the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) and the instruments in their care. The ASQ, which is based in Adelaide, has been performing continuously for the past thirty years. It is the only full-time quartet in Australia and being a part of it is limited to a very talented and equally dedicated bunch. When Hicks began filming in 2013 it was comprised of violinists Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache, violist Stephen King (very appropriate considering director Scott Hicks made Hearts in Atlantis based on a novel by his namesake) and cellist Sharon Draper.
Through a stroke of good fortune the quartet has been outfitted with a set of instruments made by Guadagnini (pronounced like linguini). For those who aren’t well versed in the history of classical music – this reviewer certainly isn’t – Giovanni Battista Guadagnini was a self-taught luthier* working during the mid-1700s and is considered to be one of, if not the, greatest maker of stringed instruments in history, being bested only by Antonio Stradivari. A Guadagnini (or as the quartet calls them in a typically Australian way; ‘Guads’) instrument is currently valued at around $1.5 million dollars, meaning that they’re sought after not only by classical musicians but also smart investors.
The documentary is split between three concomitant storylines; the ASQ, Roberto Cavagnoli; an Italian luthier who has been commissioned to make a cello in the style of Guadagnini, and the Carpenters (no relation to Karen and Richard) – a rather brash but undoubtedly dedicated group of Manhattan siblings.
All three storylines have completely different tones and it’s testament to the talent of Hicks that he’s able to weave them all together. The adventures of the ASQ come to an almost Shakespearian level of pathos and clashing personalities which comes to an almost unbelievable conclusion. Scenes of Cavagnoli patiently carving wood in his quaint little workshop in the Italian countryside look like they should be in a renaissance painting. Finally the Carpenters, who clearly have money coming out of their ears and are smart enough to keep making more, work and practice in central Manhattan and one scene of them buying shoes wouldn’t look out of place in a documentary about the 1%.
Ultimately Highly Strung has all the elements of a really good doco. Clashing real life personalities and an insight into the world of classical music that most of us won’t ever get to be a part of. For those who are interested in classical music this will be a treat. For everyone else it’s a very interesting account of some truly remarkable people with a truly beautiful soundtrack to go along with it.
*Someone who makes string instruments.
Highly Strung screens exclusively at Cinema Nova from 19th May through Sharmill Films.