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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A.K.A. Doc Pomus


This is how it's done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

This is how it’s done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

 

(2012) Music Documentary (PBS International) Doc Pomus, Lou Reed, Dr. John, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne, Jerry Lieber, Raoul Felder, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Kenny Hirsch, Dion DiMucci, Shawn Colvin, Willi Burke, Alex Halberstadt, Ken Emerson, Marshall Chapman, Mike Stoller, Dave Marsh, Robin Lerner, Hal Willner, Josh Alan Friedman, Jimmy Scott, Gerry Goffin, Penny Arcade. Directed by William Hechter and Peter Miller

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The name Doc Pomus is probably not one you’re all that familiar with unless you’re one of those music fans who reads incessantly about classic rock and pop. Even if you’re one of those people, you still might not know the name and if you do, chances are you don’t know much more than that.

Pomus started his career as a blues singer, and those who have heard his early recordings were startled to find out that he wasn’t an old black man from the Delta but a white Jew from the Bronx. He was perhaps the most unlikely blues singer ever but he certainly understood the blues. Stricken with polio as a child, Doc was on crutches or a wheelchair most of his life. Not the best looking of men, he was still attractive to women largely with the force of his teddy bear personality but also with his sensitivity and genius for expressing love simply and elegantly.

Pomus has written or co-written (with frequent partner Mort Shuman) some of the most beloved songs in the history of music, including “Save the Last Dance,” “Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” “Young Blood” and “Viva Las Vegas” to name just a few. He started out as one of the Brill Building writers who brought hit after hit in the late 50s and early 60s. As writing their own songs became more en vogue for artists as the 60s grew more turbulent, Pomus became more of a gun for hire, continuing to write for artists as diverse as B.B. King, Dr. John, Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull.

Pomus was also a tireless crusader for fellow writers and performers, making sure those who had been overlooked got breaks when he could arrange them. His efforts made him a beloved figure in the music industry and garnered him a lot of respect from those who knew about his behind the scenes work.

Pomus passed away in 1991 from lung cancer and was elected to both the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame the following year, honors richly deserved.  This documentary is a testimony to his lasting influence on music both as a songwriter but also as a champion for its preservation and as a mentor to literally dozens of writers who came after him, including such current hitmakers as Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin.

This is a pretty standard music documentary with performance footage, interviews both archival and modern and a few graphic goodies. It is a fairly informative documentary but I’m not sure if that’s because Pomus is so criminally not well-known or because the filmmakers meant this to be that way (it is after all slated to air on PBS). Still, one must applaud the filmmakers for bringing back into the spotlight someone who deserved to be there from the beginning so it gets extra kudos and points for that alone.

Making music documentaries is not a matter of just slapping some clips and interviews together and this is certainly not that; some care and thought went into this and certainly that’s appreciated. However, this isn’t an innovative entry into the genre so if you’re looking for something that ventures beyond the Behind the Music formula, this doesn’t stray too far from that path. However if you’re looking to learn more about a giant of the industry whose story isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve come to the right place.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific music, some of the most iconic in rock and pop history. Tells the story of someone who doesn’t get the recognition he should have.

REASONS TO STAY: Slow in places. Loses steam near the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use but mainly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pomus’ real name was Jerome Solon Felder.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie will be making festival appearances before an eventual airing on PBS.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sing Your Song

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: All the Light in the Sky and more coverage from the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Adventureland


Adventureland

Jesse Eisenberg is taken aback when he discovers that Kristen Stewart thinks Robert Pattinson is dreamy.

(Miramax) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Martin Starr, Paige Howard, Margarita Levieva, Wendie Malick. Directed by Greg Mottola

All of us at one time or another have a summer job that at the time we worked it sucked rocks. When we look back on that time in our lives, however, we are almost surprised when we realize our memories of it are fond indeed.

For James (Eisenberg), it’s the summer of 1987. He is getting ready to go to Columbia University, and plans on going to Europe over the summer. Unfortunately for James, his dad is downsized so the money earmarked for his trip has to go to other things. In fact, James is going to have to get himself a summer job.

Qualified to do absolutely nothing, not even fast food, James is beginning to get desperate until he lands a job working the games at Adventureland, the local amusement park. At first, it’s like a living hell; the park is falling apart, the games are rigged and the people there are rude and cruel.

Gradually, James begins to make connections; with Joel (Starr), the bespectacled literary geek who affects a pipe and may be even more picked on than James is; with Connell (Reynolds), the married but cool maintenance man who once played onstage with Lou Reed, at least according to Connell; and most importantly, with Em (Stewart), a fellow games employee who may be even more screwed up than James himself.

Em and James begin an awkward romance, the kind that is so fragile that the smallest stress could blow it away like a dandelion. In that kind of relationship, you tread carefully, each step carefully considered like you’re walking through a minefield which in essence, you are.

Mottola, who previously directed Superbad, steered clear of the raunch of his last movie and instead goes for a sweet-natured dramedy that has at its core a coming of age story but is less that than…well, I’m not sure I can describe it accurately, but suffice to say that the growth that takes place here isn’t the movie’s objective.

The studio, hoping to capitalize on Mottola’s Superbad, marketed it in a way that suggested that Adventureland was similar in tone, and it clearly is not. That may have cost the movie some box office receipts, unfortunately. That’s a shame because this is basically a pretty good film.

Eisenberg, who has been characterized (not unjustly) as a poor man’s Michael Cera, is less annoying than Cera here (which carried over to his next role in Zombieland). However, it is Kristen Stewart who is in my opinion the real reason to see this. While some might hate on her because of her Twilight connection, she is actually a pretty accomplished actress and shows it here with her portrayal of a girl who makes horrible decisions, is desperately miserable and yet remains unbelievably cool.

There are some pretty nice backing performances as well; Hader and Wiig, for example, as the managers of the park who are despised by their employees, and Levieva as the staff slut. It’s all set to a pretty nifty 80s soundtrack that owes more to the Replacements and their ilk than to the more standard Depeche Mode/Wang Chung school of new wave that most period films tend to employ.

Sadly, the movie falls through the cracks between raunchy sex comedy, bittersweet period piece and coming of age drama, with elements of all three. It’s definitely a movie worth checking out, but be warned in advanced that while there are some funny moments, it’s not a comedy per se. It’s the kind of film that can’t really be easily categorized except as high quality.

WHY RENT THIS: A bittersweet paean to summer jobs, uncertain futures and desperate romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not raunchy enough to compete with modern comedies and too raunchy to appeal to family audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug use, some sexuality and bad language. In other words, I’d probably think twice before letting the kids see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on Mottola’s real-life experiences at the Adventureland park in Long Island; the movie was shot at Kennywood outside of Pittsburgh, however since the real Adventureland has changed so much over the years.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some fake promos for the fictional Adventureland amusement park as well as an employee training video and drug policy overview.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Miracle at St. Anna