April 30, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Joel Van Haren
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.
The documentary “Plucked” tells the story of the 2014 theft of a 1715 Stradivarius violin valued at more than $6 million. The brazen theft, which took place in Milwaukee, involved the FBI, Interpol and a manhunt that made the news worldwide. Although the outcome of the case is widely known, “Plucked” director Joel Van Haren doesn’t assume that everyone watching this movie knows if the violin was ever found and if whoever was responsible for the theft was ever caught and punished. Van Haren (who makes his directorial feature-film debut with “Plucked”) skillfully weaves the story as a mystery that unfolds right before viewers’ eyes.
The movie begins with a background of the Stradivari violins to explain why these musical instruments are so valuable. At the Violin Museum (formerly known as the Stradivari Museum) in Cremona, Italy, museum curator Fausto Cacciatori says that the violins’ rarified status has much to do with the trees from which the violins are made: “The sound of the violin is the breath of the tree.”
The documentary also interviews several Stradiviari enthusiasts, including Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond, who can’t believe his luck that he gets to play a 1715 “ex-Lipiński” Stradivarius violin. The violin, which was loaned to him by a benefactor who wished to remain anonymous, used to be owned by world-renowned violinists such as Karol Lipiński and Giuseppe Tartini.
One evening after a concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College on January 27, 2014, Almond was walking to his car with the violin tucked safely in its case when he was attacked with a stun gun by a masked man who stole the violin from him. The man drove off with an accomplice. The rest of the documentary unfolds as a tension-filled investigation, with the use of some re-enactment footage. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, who is interviewed in the film, talks about how the stakes were high not just because of the violin’s multimillion-dollar value but also because the outcome of the investigation would impact the reputation of Milwaukee.
What’s a little mind-boggling is that Almond was allowed to walk around with such a valuable instrument without having any backup security. Banks have armed security to transport things that are a fraction of the value of that violin. Needless to say, Almond probably changed his security measures after the robbery.
Fortunately, there was a cell phone in Almond’s violin case so the investigators were able to track down the violin case. Unfortunately, by the time they found the case, the violin and bows had been removed, so the hunt continued. Because of the rarity of the Stradivarius violin that was stolen and the level of publicity that the robbery got, selling the violin would be very difficult. Whoever stole the violin probably didn’t know that the very cold weather at the time could permanently damage the violin if it wasn’t stored properly, which was another reason why there was intense pressure to find the violin.
It would be too much of a spoiler for this review to talk about the outcome of this case, but the documentary tells the story from various perspectives. The case has some bizarre elements, including how the 1998 movie “The Red Violin” played a part in the robbery. Underneath the story of this crime caper is a social commentary on the “haves” and the “have nots,” and how the tensions between very different classes of people can lead to desperate crimes such as this notorious robbery.