The Australian String Quartet
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…feels padded out.
So-called “classical music” was just music once, but it has been preserved, if not fossilised, as an elite and arcane form. Australian director, Scott Hicks – who will still be best remembered for his brilliant early effort, Shine – clearly loves his music, and he has a good “in” into that world. In this slightly off beat documentary, he follows the fortunes of the long running Australian String Quartet. Part of the story is that they get to play instruments that were made in the mid-18th Century which are worth literally millions. The film follows the creative tensions that led to their most talented player (the first violin) deciding to quit. This was a shock at the time but, though it was big news to the group, it is not interesting enough to carry a whole doco.
The film then veers off into a long “middle eight” about the stringed instruments themselves, and the craftsmen (mostly men) who keep the ancient techniques alive. As cooking shows long since worked out, watching craft processes being done has an intrinsic watchability. In fact, the scenes where a young Italian instrument maker shapes the back of his Guadagnini (like a Stradivarius) copy with a simple wooden spoke-shave is one of the great visual pleasures of the film. Unfortunately, Highly Strung is not as strong throughout. At one point, we meet an ultra-rich New York banking and musical family who not only have some of the most expensive instruments in the world, but are also launching fashion brands and have shoes with tens of thousands worth of diamonds embedded in them. We never get to know or like these people, and they don’t seem to fit the rest of the film. At this juncture, refinement tips over into slightly sickening conspicuous consumption with little or no point to it. Somehow, images of the poor who live in the nearby New York ghettos float into one’s mind.
The main problem with Highly Strung is that it feels padded out. As above, the squabbles between the highly strung creative types are of passing interest but not unusual, and Hicks doesn’t really go in deep enough for us to care. Most unfortunate of all is that we get to hear so little of what these huge talents can do. Too little live music in a music doco is an odd and damaging artistic choice.