By Brian Wise
The January 2014 theft of the “Lipinski” Stradivari from Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond was unusual not just for its violent dimensions, but for the attention it brought to the world of high-end string instruments. It was a rare moment when a discussion of bows and varnish could seep into the Rachel Maddow Show and in a 5,200-word feature in Vanity Fair. But can such a well-documented story have the same impact five years later?
Plucked, a documentary film that premiered on April 28 at the Tribeca Film Festival, explores the crime and its aftermath in a fresh and sometimes provocative light: by not focusing on Almond or the $6-million violin, but rather on the lives and motivations of the two men charged in the case. After all, they were stealing an instrument so visible that it couldn’t really be sold or played in public.
Plucked is directed by Joel Van Haren, a young video journalist from Milwaukee who was working for Al Jazeera at the time of the robbery. By coincidence, he was already shooting footage of Almond for a performance video project. Then, late one frigid evening after a concert, a 41-year-old man named Salah Salahadyn shot the violinist with a taser gun and made off with the 1715 Stradivari in a burgundy minivan. The police, with help from the FBI, retrieved the violin from a cold Milwaukee attic nine days later.
Crisply edited and alert to droll ironies, the documentary tells the story using police interrogation footage, tape of Almond’s 911 call, and visits to Cremona, Italy, and the attic where the violin was perilously stashed. But most compelling are the interviews with Salahadyn and a Milwaukee barber, memorably named Universal Knowledge Allah, who supplied the taser.
Van Haren says he slowly convinced the two men to open up after meeting them in the courthouse hallway. “As two black Muslim guys living in Milwaukee being covered by a mostly white press, they saw an opportunity to have their story told in a different light,” Van Haren said in an interview after the premiere.
The bespectacled Salah Salahadyn emerges as an eloquent man who craves notoriety and fancies himself a high-end art thief. Raised in a lower-middle class Milwaukee neighborhood but educated partly in suburban schools, he never quite finds his footing in either world. At the time of the robbery, he lived rent-free in return for managing his apartment building, but money was clearly a struggle.
Proclaiming himself a “Sotheby’s of the streets,” Salahadyn previously spent five years in prison after he tried to resell a $25,000 statue to the art gallery from which it had been stolen in 1995. He takes an aspirational view of art and culture, and the filmmakers follow him to a favorite local bookshop, the Milwaukee Art Museum (where he admires a carved-ivory elephant), and his own living room, where he replays a DVD of The Red Violin, starring Samuel L. Jackson as an unscrupulous appraiser. In a search of his apartment, police find a scrapbook of articles on the “Lipinski” and other violins.
“Early on, we decided we wanted to place Salahadyn in a context where he’s seen as an expert, because he was to me at the time,” said Van Haren. “A lot of the coverage that was happening at the time was dismissing him as your typical street criminal. He didn’t see himself that way, so it felt unfair of us to present him in that way.”
The film also explores the worlds of LaToya Atlas, Salahadyn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and getaway driver (she was arrested, but then released without being charged), and Allah, who the police traced through paper ID tags that were dispersed when the taser was fired. Allah emerges as a relatively stable figure, working in the same barbershop for 17 years and spending off-hours teaching karate classes and playing with his children (he received a 3-1/2-year prison sentence while Salahadyn got 7 years).
During the investigation, Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn defended putting his top investigators on the “Lipinski” case, noting, “this is Milwaukee’s piece of the Western patrimony.” Meanwhile, the city had been experiencing record levels of gun violence. Plucked juxtaposes boarded-up neighborhoods with tonier locales—including the Milwaukee Symphony stage and a Whole Foods where Almond shopped—suggesting how the crime was in some ways a byproduct of the gap between the city’s haves and have-nots.
Almond says that the film’s angle came as something of a surprise, but it got him to think differently about the episode. “It’s not just a film about a theft, which from my standpoint is probably a little more of what I expected,” he said, with a laugh. “I mean, I’m the one who got shot with the taser.”
Almond added that he doesn’t hold a grudge: “I’m happy about it in a lot of ways. That’s not to say that I’m going to sit down and have a beer with Salah.”