Carmine Street Guitars

Flowers aren’t the gift; flowers come with the gift.

(2018) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Rick Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly, Dallas Good, Travis Good, Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, Eszter Balint, Jim Jarmusch, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Charlie Sexton, Kirk Douglas, Dave Hill, Eleanor Friedberger, Jamie Hince, Stewart Hurwood, Christine Bougie. Directed by Ron Mann

 

It is sometimes depressing to consider how the world has become so commodified. Everything is product now; mass-produced, soulless, disposable. Hand-crafted items are a rarity now, and becoming rarer by the day. Few people take the time or the effort to make things from scratch.

Rick Kelly is one of those people. He has a storefront in Greenwich Village in New York City; the titular Carmine Street Guitars. There, he and his apprentice Cindy Hulej make guitars the old-fashioned way – by hand. Rick uses wood rescued from buildings that have been demolished, buildings that predate the Civil War and I’m not talking about the Marvel movie.

This documentary ostensibly follows the shop for a week in the life, although it doesn’t ostensibly say so. There are pictures on the wall of some of the store’s famous customers (one, a signed photo of Robert Quine, is crooked and no amount of fiddling will straighten it out) which include the late Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s current guitarist, former New Wave pretty boy Charlie Sexton, drops by to test drive one of Rick’s guitars.

In fact much of the film is people dropping by to check out guitars Rick has made or is making. Those dropping by include Nels Cline of Wilco, there to buy a birthday gift for bandmate Jeff Tweedy; jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell who plays some surf guitar hits from early in his career. Lenny Kaye of the Patty Smith Band also drops by to noodle on a guitar as does avant garde guitarist Marc Ribot. No matter what the style of the guitarist, they all sound pretty amazing on Carmine Street guitars.

This is a stream of consciousness kind of cinema verité; there are no talking head interviews, no animated sequences and there is no archival footage. We are always in the moment during the film; we don’t get a lot of context and are left to manufacture that on our own. Kelly is kind of an ex-hippie who has an almost grandfatherly aspect to him; the guitars are his children and his clients prospective adoptive parents. Hulej is even more interesting than the idiosyncratic Kelly (whose 93-year-old mother answers phones and does the books for the store). A platinum blonde goth punk chick, her extraordinary beauty works for her as a cinematic focal point but against her in her career; she talks frankly with Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces that men often don’t take her seriously because of her looks, particularly as a crafter of guitars.

While Hulej seems to primarily be concerned with burning graphics into the guitars, she can also build them and the sense that these two people are artisans in the best sense of the word also points out that they are a disappearing breed. Watching the two of them at work reminds the viewer that there is something special about those who love what they do and take pride in what they make.

I like that Kelly uses old wood – what he calls “the bones of Old New York” – in his craft. That shows not only a sense of history but also of caring very much about not just where he set up shop but what is sold inside of it. It reminds me why New Yorkers consider their city the greatest on Earth and more importantly, why they have a case for that boast. I know that if I played guitar, I’d want to own one of these. Those who love guitars and the people who play them are very much encouraged to see this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much a stream-of-consciousness documentary; no talking heads, no animations. Some great guitar noodling by masters of the craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: May not have as much appeal for non-guitar junkies.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Strad Style
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury

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