At Cremona, Italy’s Stradivarius Museum, peerless 18th century violins are protected by myriad security measures, including cameras, alarms, and armed guards stationed both in the museum’s hallways and inside a remote control booth. Though kept on display for the public, the instruments exist in what might rightfully be thought of as a glorified high-tech vault.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 2008, however, the Lipinski Strad—a 1715 Stradivarius violin valued at over $6 million, and rumored to have once been touched by the Devil himself—was left in the hands of acclaimed musician Frank Almond, whose sole means of safeguarding it was hiding a cell phone in its case, for GPS-tracking purposes.
This was, as you might assume, a less-than-ideal way to handle a treasured work of musical art that was constructed centuries earlier by legendary craftsman. As Plucked makes clear, that assumption was proven correct on January 27, 2014, when after finishing a concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Almond exited the building to head to his car, only to be confronted by a man with a taser. A debilitating jolt of electricity later, and Almond was on the ground screaming in pain, and the Stradivarius was speeding off in a van, its case discarded close by on the snowy side of the street.
Premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Joel Van Haren’s gripping documentary is the story of both that heist and the police’s urgent efforts to recover it before it was irreparably damaged or, worse still, vanished forever—a fate that had previously befallen other prized violins pilfered from their caretakers. The ensuing investigation (including a $100,000 reward) soon led law enforcement to a colorful pair of suspects who didn’t come across as exceptionally careful (much less clever) about covering up their crime. Which they weren’t, in large part because the mastermind behind this snatching seemed, on some level, to court the notoriety his deed would inevitably engender.
That individual was Salah Salahadyn, who early on in Plucked discusses his fondness for hand-crafted works of historical art, as well as proclaims, “I pride myself on knowing things that other people don’t.” As Van Haren subsequently elucidates via a series of first-person interviews, Salah grew up on the wrong side of the Milwaukee tracks, and was sent to a suburban school for three grade-school years by his single mother, who encouraged his hunger for reading, knowledge, and the finer things in life. When he returned to his local public school, Salah claims, he felt out of place—his clothes, speech and interests were a cut above his peers, even though he wanted to fit in. This, in turn, led him to seek street cred by doing stupid things, like firebombing a store (which he denies), and stealing a $25,000 sculpture (which he confesses he did).
A stint in prison for the latter infraction followed, as did a relationship with long-time partner Latoya, the mother of his four kids, who admits—in one of Plucked’s many deeply-weird moments—that she was attracted to Salah both because he was highly confident and intelligent, and because of his dark skin (“The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice!” she laughs). Unfortunately, Salah’s self-assurance bordered on the cocky (he says he has “a noble name attached to a noble person”). And his feelings about his hometown’s white culture and community—which he respected and coveted on the one hand, and deeply resented on the other—were intensely conflicted.
Through comments by Salah’s former school principal and late juxtapositions between a ritzy symphony gala and boarded-up inner-city storefronts, Plucked implies that Salah’s actions were the byproduct of racial and socioeconomic disparities. The fact that Van Haren hastily raises—and then drops—this suggestion speaks to its dubiousness, since the more persuasive motivation for Salah’s theft was, as Latoya contends, his massive ego. That ostensibly blinded him to his meager chances for success, which shrank from slim to none the second he enlisted a jujitsu-teaching barbershop owner named Universal Knowledge Allah (yes, that’s his real name) to aid him in his quest, and then found himself in an interrogation room where—as videos reveal—he looked guilty as sin.
Employing a mix of talking-head interviews, dramatic recreations and archival material, Van Haren generates potent intrigue from his depiction of detectives’ race-against-time search for the Lipinski Strad. He benefits from the considerable outrageousness of his tale and, particularly, of Salah, who, decked out in buttoned-to-the-top shirts, dark-rimmed glasses and a trim goatee, resembles a narcissistic-nerd character that Chris Rock might have played on Saturday Night Live, and whose justifications for his behavior are as unconvincing as his headspace is muddled. By the time he’s semi-playfully—albeit not quite playfully enough—forwarding the idea that he might have been Satanically enchanted by the violin (given its prominent relation to the Faustian legend), it’s apparent that he’s an erudite and cultured man with more than a few screws loose.
At a fleet 84 minutes, Plucked maintains suspense about the ultimate fate of the Lipinski Strad. Along the way, it exhibits a cheeky sense of humor—never better than during its climax, when handling the precious possession is equated with the moon landing, replete with cutaways to footage of a descending Apollo 11. Such comedic touches are apt in light of the bonkers nature of this headline-making material, which quickly attracted local and national media coverage. Though he doesn’t state it outright, Salah seems to have wanted that sort of disreputable attention, no matter if it put him back behind bars—a notion forwarded by a police-interrogation chat in which he acts borderline-offended by cops’ ignorance about his past crimes (thus mitigating his vision of himself as a criminal braniac).
A deeply-conflicted figure plagued by varying degrees of anger, arrogance, bitterness and covetousness—all of which were wrapped up in issues involving race, economic and social hierarchies, and his bizarro kinship with Morgan Freeman’s Moorish character Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (!)—Salah turns out to be Plucked’s most uniquely-fascinating subject. For a film that’s nominally about a fabled, and fabulously expensive, Stradivarius, that’s no small feat.