Maintaining a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder can be difficult, to say the least. These issues are fully exposed in Sergei Safiullin’s documentary profile on San Francisco street musician Ben Barnes, The madness of the violin. As a child, Barnes showed a keen interest in the violin. His dedication and aptitude for playing the instrument were far beyond the expectations of a person his age.
As a young adult, he became a member of the popular Bay Area group Deadweight, playing the electric violin. Unfortunately, during their tour of Japan, Barnes experienced episodes of paranoia. When mixed with the rock band’s standard cocktail of narcotics, its erratic demeanor caused Barnes to be kicked out of the band.
Barnes would then enter a controversial legal battle over the music he wrote with Deadweight. Later, he would rewrite many of these songs for his new bluegrass band, Swindlefish. But, sadly, the group’s success will be short-lived as history repeats itself over and over again in an infuriating and heart-wrenching loop.
“…during their tour in Japan, Barnes experienced episodes of paranoia. “
The madness of the violin traces Barnes’ cycle of bipolar disorder. It starts with big dreams of making music, forming personal and professional relationships with a band, the increased stress of touring, using drugs to alleviate that stress, and the paranoia that everyone is turning on you. Then, as Barnes deteriorates, everyone in her life pulls away and relationships are irreparably damaged. The film chronicles four such cycles, one ending with his suicide attempt at a BART station in San Francisco.
I think it would be fair to say that, as presented, Barnes’ life and career was tragic – certainly a waste of potential and ‘what could have been’. Still, there is hope. Today Barnes is a music teacher and busker in popular Bay Area tourist destinations. The film considers that Barnes may not be famous, but arguably happier.
Writer / director Safiullin talks to Barnes himself and interviews many of his friends and family. They offer the most valuable information about their condition and provide a point of connection for anyone close to someone with bipolar disorder. Most first met Barnes when he was the friendliest and most creative, at the height of bliss. They then describe the start of the downward spiral. Inevitably, this leads to this point deciding whether to abandon Barnes or take on the difficult task of staying until he returns to an upward climb.
The importance of The madness of the violin is to raise awareness and understand bipolar disorder. It’s easy to see that Ben Barnes is a very talented and gifted musician who should have been famous. Fortunately, music has always been there for him. At the same time, it’s easy to push people like him aside. For those who heroically stand by their side in the worst, they will see that they are not alone and that someone understands precisely what they are going through.