Carmine Street Guitars: Plucky re-constructionists and string lovers tell a tale that resonates

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

 A warmly resonant documentary from Ron Mann  (Comic Book Confidential, Tales of the Rat Fink), Carmine Street Guitars, focuses on a New York guitar shop and its owner and resident luthier, Rick Kelly, who handcrafts Telecaster-style guitars made of wood reclaimed from torn-down New York buildings. 

The reclaimed wood serves as a metaphor for preserving cultural memory, as well as an example of practical recycling.  Some of the traditional woods used for making premium guitars (ash, ebony, mahogany, rosewood and spruce) have been depleted by disease, over-harvesting and destruction of rain forests.

Guitar re-constructionist Rick Kelly, and his cluttered workshop in the doc Carmine Street Guitars

Guitar re-constructionist Rick Kelly, and his cluttered workshop in the doc Carmine Street Guitars

Mann’s laidback, dramatized-reality approach to the subject is to treat Carmine Street Guitars, at 42 Carmine Street, as a village general store from another era, a place for friendly gossip and home-made goods.

Proprietor Kelly works his next-generation apprentice, Cindy Hulej, who looks like a shaggy-haired anime character, and who burns text and images into the guitars. They spend their afternoons crafting guitars in the back of the shop and hosting visitors in the front. Kelly’s mom, Dorothy, wanders through the merchandise, applying her duster to the guitars hanging in rows on the walls.

The film is set over the course of a week. Each day, famous friends drop in, try out different instruments for mini-performances, or showing off their own kinds of doodling. The guest list includes jazz-rock luminaries Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, Bob Dylan’s guitarist, Charlie Sexton, Lou Reed’s guitar tech Stewart Hurwood, Patti Smith’s collaborator Lenny KayeKirk Douglas of The Roots; actress/singer Eszter Balint; Christine Bougie of Bahamas, Nels Cline of Wilco (buying a 50th birthday present for Jeff Tweedy). As well, Dallas and Travis Good from the Canadian band The Sadies, (who created the film’s score) drop in to introduce themselves and test out instruments.

 Don’t expect trade secrets about string gauges, custom pick-ups, or even to debate about how much wood in an electric guitar even matters. Rather, you can think of Carmine Street Guitars as a declaration of faith in the great, global post-War electric guitar cult, which, even in its apparent twilight (as handheld instruments give way to computer programs)  holds a powerful allure. The musicians who appear here, out of the spotlight, show a real affection for the these handcrafted tools of their trade. 

There’s a bit of a Dark Lord in this story, too: A real estate agent in a typecast suit wanders in and asks about the store’s square footage. The place next door has gone up for sale and it seems Carmine Street Guitars’ days may be numbered.

The film credits thank Jim Jarmusch, who brings in an acoustic guitar for an adjustment, as an “instigator.” Jarmusch’s 2003 film, Coffee and Cigarettes, is a useful reference point for Mann’s laid-back, semi-dramatized style. Instead of having an off-screen interviewer, Mann uses the people in the film – Rick, Cindy, and the musical guests interview each other, with an awkward sincerity, opening up conversations about patinas, wood and the sounds of memories.

Carmine Street Guitars. Directed by Ron Mann. Written by Len Blum. With Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej, Bill Frissell, Marc Ribot, Charlie Sexton, Lenny Kaye, Kirk Douglas; Eszter Balint; Christine Bougie, Dallas and Travis Good. Carmine Street Guitars can be seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox, The Vancouver Cinematheque, Cinema du Parc, Montreal, The Vic, Victoria.