“Strad Style,” directed by Stefan Avalos, is an underdog story to rule them all
It was about two and a half minutes into Stefan Avalos’ documentary “Strad Style” that I became entirely enamored with Daniel Houck, the geeky, tattooed, enigmatic violin maker whom Avalos follows on his quest to create a replica of the world’s most famous violin. It was probably his laugh that first endeared me to him, a high pitched couple of notes that trail off into a wheezing chuckle. Then Houck showed off some of his tattoos (a portrait of violinist Jascha Heifetz on his forearm and Antonio Stradivari on his calf) and a gilded low rider plaque that reads “Strad Style,” a piece of bling quite out of place in Laurelville, Ohio, where Houck lives “in the middle of a cornfield.”
“I’m basically nothing,” says the then-33-year-old, as Avalos films him driving, talking about his love of violins and what drove him to begin creating them—he knew he could never afford a nice instrument, so he decided he’d learn to make one.
Through a twist of fate and social media, Houck offers his services to a rising star, violin soloist Razvan Stoica, and confidently says he can make a replica of “Il Cannone Guarnerius,” a 1743 violin which Stoica says is his “dream” instrument. Houck agrees to a tight timeline to finish the painstaking project (mind you, Houck has never laid eyes on this violin, tackling the entire project from photographs and models) for a concert Stoica will perform in Europe. Thus, Avalos’ documentary becomes a nail-biter set to a ticking clock. And Houck, who is self-admittedly bipolar, finds himself his own worst enemy as his mind wanders, money runs out, and he literally works magic to invoke the spirit of the luthiers he’s trying to channel into his creation.
“It’s about wanting to do something great, and I think everyone can relate to that,” Avalos told The Sheet. “Wanting to mean something, wanting to count, being stuck where you are, it’s the classic human condition.” Avalos, who started playing violin at the age of two and a half, didn’t really set out to make this film, he said. In fact, when Avalos met Houck he was already two years into filming a documentary about the world’s most precious violins—their makers, their players, even their thieves. But once he met Houck, he said, he knew that his subject had chosen him. “There was a violinist who kept referring to Daniel as ‘CF,’ he never used his name,” said Avalos. “And I finally said, ‘Who is CF?’ ‘Crazy Friend,’” replied the musician.
Houck is like most self-taught geniuses, especially those who find themselves born into a geographical or familial situation where they are perpetually misunderstood. He mildly reminded me of John B. McLemore, the tragic subject of the wildly popular “S-Town” podcast, though with Houck the viewer sees a much brighter possible outcome, perhaps not least because he is so young. In one scene, he laments the fact that he’ll be 35 in two years, and fears that if he doesn’t do anything great by that point, his life will have been a waste. “I’ve shown this movie to people who create things, and they say, ‘This movie scared the sh*t out of me, because that’s just how I feel,’” said Avalos.