Nestled in an inconspicuous row of red brick storefronts in Greenwich Village is Carmine Street Guitars. On an average day you can find master guitar marker Rick Kelly and his apprentice Cindy Hulej quietly creating some of the finest hand-crafted guitars in the world. These are not merely musical instruments as every guitar literally tells a story. Made from reclaimed old wood that was once part of buildings, they are a living history of New York’ rich past.
In Ron Mann’s endlessly charming Carmine Street Guitars, we are treated to a week in the life of the store. Or at least a rough sketch of what an average week is like. The actual day-to-day running of the store often takes a back seat to the star-studded list of musicians – including Bill Frisell, Charlie Sexton, Marc Ribot, Eleanor Friedberger, Nel Cline and director/guitar player Jim Jarmusch – who come through its doors to shop, chat, or simply strum on the newest guitars.
While the famous folks will no doubt help to bring attention to the film, the true stars of this documentary are Kelly and Hulej. The pair are the perfect blend of the old and new, he is computer illiterate while she posts each new guitar she makes on Instagram, sharing the same passion for creation and artistry when it comes to building guitars. Rick is steadfast in using woodwork methods, a skill that is declining in the age of mass production, that emphasizes the importance of age and wood selection to generate the right sounds.
The store’s mom and pop aesthetic, Kelly’s mom Dorthey still does the accounting and general cleaning of the store, embodies the sentiment that craft and music is far more important than capitalistic goals. Kelly may not be rolling in the money like franchise chain stores, but he and Hulej genuinely love what they do and find great meaning in their work. When Rick states he plans to do this work for the rest of his life, we are inclined to believe him. He barely bats an eye when a real estate agent pops by hoping to sniff out a sale opportunity.
Capturing the guitar making process from the initial cutting of the wood to the finished product, Mann’s film shows that the magic of the store goes far beyond Hulej’s ability to add jaw-dropping wood-burnt portraits of Traveling Wilburys on guitars. Much like the tobacconist shop in Wayne Wang’s delightful film Smoke, Carmine Streets Guitars is a hub that fosters a sense of community. Guitars become the gateway to much deeper conversations about life in general.
At one point in the film a performance by Friedberger leads to her and Hulej getting into a discussion about sexism. Hulej openly expresses her frustration that, despite working at the shop for 5 years and doing her own artwork, she must endure condescending male customers who assume she has no knowledge of guitars whatsoever. It is a simple moment that speaks volumes about the widespread problem of gender disparity that is still plaguing every aspect of society.
In another memorable moment guitarist Jamie Hince plays a guitar with a paralyzed finger, something he has done countless times before. After hearing how the finger got injured, Kelly suggests Hince try a guitar with a thicker neck. One would think that Hince had found the elusive fountain of youth by the ways his eyes light up in discovering the comfort he now feels while playing. The section subtly speaks to the healing and motivating power that music can offer.
Just as Kelly and Hulej skillfully construct each guitar, Carmine Street Guitars carefully paints a portrait of an iconic piece of New York history. Whether it is the engaging conversations or the delicate performances, Mann’s film is as enchanting as the guitar themselves.