'Carmine Street Guitars' : Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A little gem for both guitar heads and lovers of old New York.

Ron Mann introduces Rick Kelly, who makes custom guitars from the wood that built New York.

Ron Mann, whose light docs tend toward pop-culture subjects such as comic books and novelty dance sensations, finds a rewarding tangent on rock 'n' roll iconography at Carmine Street Guitars, a Manhattan music shop whose proprietor builds custom instruments out of wood salvaged from demolished Gotham buildings. A textbook hangout film whose pleasures are barely dimmed by its director's awkward interventions, the doc's a delight for six-string gearheads and a reverie for those who still treasure what remains of pre-Bloomberg, pre-Giuliani New York.

The store, located on a short street in Greenwich Village, is both a showroom and workshop for Rick Kelly, a soft-spoken man who recalls trekking into the city from Long Island to see Jimi Hendrix — still known as Jimmy James at the time — play not far from this spot. For company, Rick has his mother Dorothy, who knits a bit when not answering the phone and keeping books, and a young apprentice named Cindy Hulej. With shaggy blonde hair and rock-chick eyeliner, Hulej is used to having male customers assume she doesn't know a pickup from a pickguard. She does, and has been learning Kelly's brand of luthiery, though her main passion (aside from maintaining a social media presence for the store) is more decorative than technical: She burns designs, text and portraits into some of the finished guitars. (We never find out who the potential buyers are for, say, a guitar with a portrait of the Traveling Wilburys on it; but these more fannish offerings surely attract interest in the shop window and on Instagram.)

Adopting a week-in-the-life format, the movie watches Kelly bike to work, open up, and sit around as celebrities come to marvel at his wares. Jazz giants Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot drop in, offering improv or a lovely take on "Surfer Girl"; Kirk Douglas of The Roots admires the serendipitous flaws in the wood on his Kelly-made guitar, which seems to have a lightning bolt emerging from the pickup; Christine Bougie of Bahamas spaces beautifully out on her lap steel.

As fun as these micro-concerts are, the musings of longtime customers can be more enjoyable. Jim Jarmusch (listed as the film's "instigator" in the credits) brings in one of his own finds, made of catalpa wood, so Kelly can improve its action, and the vibe is reminiscent of Jarmusch's appearance as a smoke-shop customer in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Blue in the Face. That film's highlight Lou Reed died before he could appear here, but his longtime guitar tech Stewart Hurwood discusses how his guitars are carrying the torch, being used for musician-free drone/feedback installations with the help of Reed's widow Laurie Anderson. Then Nels Cline comes in, shopping for a gift for his Wilco bandmate Jeff Tweedy's 50th birthday, and a viewer might well want to move into the shop permanently.

Mann doesn't ask Kelly much of anything about his craft, though we incidentally learn that he's using woodworking tools that have been handed down from his grandfather and father. We do see the collection of salvaged wood he hoards, each ancient slab inscribed with the address of the building it came from, and Kelly talks about the resins that have crystallized within each over decades, allegedly creating resonant sounds that can't be produced with virgin wood.

Several scenes, especially those between Hulej and her boss, appear to be staged attempts by Mann to get information into the film without coming out and asking his subjects. We're dealing with musicians, not actors, and the artificiality of these moments is at odds with the doc's working-class, real-New York themes. But Mann's subjects indulge him, and their efforts are as endearing as anything else in this store, a rare holdout against Manhattan homogenization.

Production company: Sphinx Productions
Distributor: Films We Like
Director-Producer: Ron Mann
Screenwriter: Len Blum
Executive producers: Carter Logan, Michael Hirsh
Directors of photography: John M. Tran, Becky Parsons
Editor: Robert Kennedy
Composer: The Sadies
Venue: Venice Film Festival

79 minutes