First Run Features // 1989 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 10th, 2008
"Who would want to be in a string quartet?"
There have been plenty of behind-the-scenes documentaries about various rock bands and musical groups. You know the sort of thing I'm talking about. Band members shout at each other over how to play a song, everybody talks about the joys and sorrows of traveling on the road, and we get a peek at what life is like on a day-to-day basis. High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet feels very much like a restrained classical version of a standard rock-doc, which actually manages to make the film feel a bit more fresh and original than it is.
When we meet The Guarneri String Quartet in the late 1980s (the film was released in 1989), they have all ready established themselves as the most durable string quartet in the world. All four members have remained together since the very beginning, which is surprising when one considers how quickly many string quartets tinker with the lineup (or just fall apart completely). Violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree, and cellist David Soyer have stuck together through thick and thin, and it doesn't look like that is going to change any time soon.
That being said, the guys certainly aren't above bickering about things. "You're playing too fast!" someone complains. "I'm playing the correct tempo. You want me to slow down the tempo, I'll slow it down, but that's the correct tempo," the accused snaps back. There's plenty of moaning and groaning about sour notes, and even more cries of despair about the unfortunate performing conditions at various locations. Despite all the nitpicking and mumbling, when the quartet sits down to perform, the results are reliably impressive. These guys know what they're doing, and all of them are in love with the idea of being part of a string quartet.
There's an interesting and somewhat surprising level of balance in the group. There isn't a single member who seems to take the lead, nor a single member that permits himself to fade into the background while others make decisions. These are four strongly opinionated men who are not afraid to speak their mind, and yet none of them are ever strongly offended by the charges anyone else happens to be making. They've been together long enough to know that arguments should lead to healthy compromise, not to temper tantrums and dissolving relationships. Even so, they aren't exactly keen to hang out with each other all the time. When they aren't practicing or preparing for a performance, they prefer not to be around each other.
For those of you who find classical music terribly dull, let me assure you that the film isn't as stuffy or self-important as you might expect a film about classical music to be. It's an interesting documentary about the complex relationship between these four men. There are plenty candid moments of humor and levity along the way which provide welcome occasional diversions. Have I ever told you how funny it is to see four string quartet members playing laser tag? The technology was a bit more exciting 20 years ago, and the guys are obviously having a blast. Perhaps the best line in the film: "This is so cool, just like Miami Vice!"
I was expecting the documentary to feature "concert film" elements a little bit more than it does. There aren't many pieces of music that are presented as uninterrupted performances? most of the performances serve as background music for conversational scenes. The film is not about promoting the string quartet's musical talent, but about examining the relationship, which is a reasonably satisfactory trade. Even so, classical music fans will undoubtedly be pleased to hear some fine performances of works by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Beethoven.
Unfortunately, the full-frame transfer is pretty miserable, more or less the equivalent of watching a video on Youtube. An extraordinary lack of detail, lots of blurry images, plenty of color bleeding, a steady stream of scratches and flecks? ugh, High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet has not been well-preserved. The sound is just a bit better, but it's disappointing to have a film so heavily reliant on music given a mono audio track. The only extras are brief bios of a couple of members of the quartet, along with a bit of text on the history of the group.
The film itself is certainly worth a look and will probably engage the
average listener, though it will be particularly interesting for those with an
appreciation for string music. Still, the crummy transfer forces me to suggest
renting the film rather than purchasing it. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated