New York — `HIGH Fidelity'' is billed as a movie about ``The Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet.'' If you didn't know string quartets have adventures, consider the challenges of playing great music all over the world - not to mention traveling and working with the same colleagues, day in and day out, for a quarter of a century. Still, the life and work of a classical quartet doesn't sound like the most exciting possible subject for a movie, even when the star of the show is the Guarneri String Quartet, one of the most respected chamber-music groups of our time. It's to the credit of director/producer Allan Miller that his documentary about this foursome is often a sprightly and charming experience. Although it isn't fast-moving and becomes a little dull at times, it's surprisingly funny and has an elegant structure - beginning with an emphasis on talk but ending with the pure eloquence of the ensemble's own playing.
What's special about the Guarneri, aside from the extraordinary skill and musical sensitivity of its four members, is that it's the oldest ``original'' string quartet in the world. It was formed 25 years ago, in 1964, and consists of the same four men to this very day: violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree, and cellist David Soyer.
They are proud of holding their group together for so long. Still, they make no secret of the tensions that such a long association leads to - tensions that give the movie an important part of its meaning. These guys are brilliant musicians with first-rate technical abilities and musical instincts. Yet they are also four guys - with different personalities, separate private lives, and ideas about music that don't always agree.
WORKING together (rehearsing, concertizing, giving interviews, even appearing in this movie) has to get a bit wearing once in a while, especially after more than two decades. At times, the members of the Guarneri seem like an old married couple - a large old married couple - that's still in love, but can't stand being together every minute. Fortunately, they meet this challenge with goodwill and good humor, even if they sometimes go out of their way (as one amusing scene demonstrates) to get hotel rooms as far apart as possible when arriving in a new city for a recital.
In addition to seeing the Guarneri members interact with each other, ``High Fidelity'' audiences hear plenty of good music - ranging from Haydn to Dvorak, some of it played in concert and some during rehearsal or recording sessions. There's a particularly fascinating glimpse of the quartet playing a C'esar Franck piece and arguing about whether to include it in their repertoire. (Franck loses.)
Earlier work by filmmaker Miller includes ``From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China,'' which picked up an Oscar for ``best documentary'' eight years ago. His directorial energy in ``High Fidelity'' isn't always as high as I could wish, and there are some basic questions the film doesn't answer. For example, I was left wondering why the Guarneri members have stayed together as a quartet instead of deciding to pursue solo careers, since all have played as soloists and could surely move in that direction if they wanted.
Yet despite a few gaps in its information, ``High Fidelity'' is a likable and entertaining film that makes a fine commercial for top-quality chamber music. It proves, as one quartet member puts it, that string quartets are not only for ``the rich and the Viennese'' to enjoy.