Scott Hicks, the director and writer of the Academy Award winning movie Shine, had never heard of ‘Guadagnini’ before. I, too, wasn’t familiar with the term until I saw this movie, his latest as both director and cinematographer – a documentary.
Hicks found out about Guadagnini in a conversation he had two years ago with Adelaide-based arts philanthropist Ulrike Klein. That’s when he discovered the story behind what are rare and extraordinary 18th century string instruments. Incidentally, Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, along with Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, all of whom lived in the 17th and/or 18th centuries, are regarded as the finest three craftsmen of string instruments. Valued at around $6 million, four Guadagninis were acquired for the exclusive use of The Australian String Quartet through the vision of Ulrike Klein.
Shot on three continents and in 10 cities, Highly Strung explores the world of instrument dealers, musicians, luthiers, collectors and philanthropists. Luthiers is the name given to those who construct and repair string instruments. It originated from the French word “luth” meaning lute.
Hicks encountered characters at every turn. They included the members of The Australian String Quartet, which found itself in flux when filming started, with changes to the line-up under dramatic and surprising circumstances. Then there are The Carpenters (not the easy listening brother and sister pop duet of the ‘70s), a sibling trio of flamboyant musical virtuosity who deal in the highest end of rare instruments; and Roberto Cavagnoli, a luthier from the age of 13, is based in Cremona, Italy – the ‘Violin Capital of the World’. Roberto was commissioned by Ulrike Klein to craft an exact copy of the Guadagnini cello in South Australia, a task that is far from easy. He has to source the wood from the forests of the Dolomites and uses only hand tools over a period of four months to create his replica. It is very much a physical exercise.
Among the others to whom Scott Hicks speaks is Charles Beare, renowned as the world’s foremost authenticator, expert at identifying and confirming the provenance of rare instruments.
Highly Strung is about energy, excitement, enthusiasm, passion and obsession. From the musicians to the philanthropists, from the luthiers to the collectors … they all have it – they care deeply about the instruments and how they are handled and played. It is, for many of them, their life story – the thing they care about most – although, based upon what we get to see, this obsession can also have a dark side that results in destruction.
I was reminded of that at the end of the film when we find out what happened to the four members of The Australian String Quartet. My mind was immediately transported back to that excellent eight-time Oscar winning 1984 film Amadeus, in which Antonio Salieri (F Murray Abraham) wrestles with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce).
I was starting to tire of all the hyperbole when the doco took an unexpected turn that gave it a mighty kick along (in the right direction) because there was scandal and that certainly piqued my interest. Highly Strung is a peek behind the curtain of a world of rarefied air, a world where ego and money and passion do – on occasions – collide, although in large measure this is a reverential portrait. Rated M, it scores a 6½ to 7 out of 10.
Director: Scott Hicks
Release Date: 19 May 2016
Rating: M – Coarse language
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television