Violin Madness Image

Violin Madness

By Alan Ng | January 7, 2022

Maintaining a relationship with someone suffering from bipolar disorder can be challenging, to say the least. These issues are on full display in Sergei Safiullin’s documentary profile of San Francisco street musician Ben Barnes, Violin Madness. As a child, Barnes showed a keen interest in the violin. His dedication and aptitude for playing the instrument were way beyond expectations for someone his age.

As a young adult, he became a member of the popular Bay Area band, Deadweight, playing the electric violin. Unfortunately, during their tour of Japan, Barnes experienced episodes of paranoia. When mixed with the standard cocktail of rock band narcotics, his erratic behavior got Barnes kicked out of the band.

Barnes would then enter a contentious legal battle over the music he wrote with Deadweight. Later, he would rewrite many of those songs for his new bluegrass band, Swindlefish. But, sadly, the band’s success would be short-lived as history cycles over and over again in a maddening and heartbreaking loop.

“…during their tour of Japan, Barnes experienced episodes of paranoia.”

Violin Madness charts the cycle of Barnes’ bipolar disorder. It begins with grand dreams of creating music, forming personal and professional band relationships, the increased stress of touring, using drugs to alleviate said stress, and paranoia that everyone is turning against you. Then, as Barnes deteriorates, everyone in his life pulls away, and relationships are irreparably damaged. The film chronicles four of these cycles, with one ending in 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 a tragic one — certainly one of lost potential and “what might have been.” Yet, there is hope. Today, Barnes is a music teacher and busker at popular tourist destinations in the Bay Area. The film considers that Barnes may not be famous but arguably is happier.

Writer/director Safiullin talks to Barnes himself and interviews many of his friends and family. They offer the most valuable insight into his condition and bring a point of connection to anyone close with someone suffering from bipolar disorder. Most first met Barnes when he was the most friendly and creative, at the apex of happiness. They then describe the beginning of the downward spiral. Inevitably, it leads to that point on deciding whether to give up on Barnes or take on the challenging task of sticking around until he returns on an upward swing.

The importance of Violin Madness is to bring awareness and understanding to bipolar disorder. It’s easy to see that Ben Barnes is a highly talented and gifted musician who should have been famous. Thankfully, music was always there for him. At the same time, it’s easy just to cast people like him aside. For those who heroically stand by their side through the worst, they will see that they are not alone, and someone understands precisely what they are going through.

For information about watching Violin Madness, visit

Violin Madness (2022)

Directed and Written: Sergei Safiullin

Starring: Ben Barnes, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

Violin Madness Image

"…bring[s] awareness and understanding to bipolar disorder."

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