VOD film review: Carmine Street Guitars
Rick and Cindy8
Matthew Turner | On 27, Jun 2020
Director: Ron Mann
With: Rick Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly, Dallas Good, Travis Good, Bill Frisell, Jim Jarmusch, Kirk Douglas
Watch Carmine Street Guitars online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ron Mann (Comic Street Confidential, Altman), this week-in-the-life portrait of a fabled Greenwich Village guitar store offers some much needed respite from these troubled times. As peaceful and soothing as it is utterly charming, it’s a quiet love letter to good, old-fashioned craftsmanship and a hymn to the beauty of music.
The film charts a typical working week at Carmine Street Guitars, where guitar maker Rick Kelly builds custom guitars by hand. For each guitar, he uses New York City wood from local buildings, which he either gets by salvage when someone tips him off to some renovation work, or by, as he puts it, “dumpster diving”. That might sound like a pride-in-New-York thing, but there’s actually a good reason for using it – because it’s so old (most New York buildings date back to the 1800s), the resins have crystallised, leaving tiny air spaces that give each instrument its unique tone and resonance.
White-haired and softly spoken, Rick is a supremely laidback character who’s ridiculously modest about his craftsmanship. His constant companions in the shop are his 93 year-old mother, Dorothy – who does the books and, frankly, doesn’t get enough screen time – and his young apprentice Cindy Hulej, who’s been building guitars alongside Rick for five years and who also runs the store’s Instagram account. Part of Rick’s charm is that he’s resolutely old-school – he doesn’t have a mobile phone or the internet at home and when Cindy tells him he needs to move into the 21st century, he simply replies: “Why?”
As well as observing Rick and Cindy at work making guitars, Mann’s cameras are on hand for a parade of hipster customers, including Eleanor Friedberger from the Fiery Furnaces, Nels Cline from Wilco (aiming to buy a present for fellow band member Jeff Tweedy), Charlie Sexton from the Bob Dylan Band, Kirk Douglas from the Roots, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who’s also named in the closing credits as the film’s “instigator”.
Some of the musicians are just there to chat about guitars, but most of them pick up the instruments, plug them into the store’s amp and play songs – as Cindy notes, they’re even allowed to sing, something that’s apparently frowned upon in other guitar stores. At any rate, Mann makes the commendable decision to allow each song to be played in full, revelling in the obvious pleasure the private performance brings each musician.
Alongside the musical moments (Bill Frisell playing Surfer Girl is a particular highlight), the film is packed with lovely scenes and sequences. Standouts include: Rick and a friend surprising Cindy with a guitar cake on her five-year anniversary of working at the store; Rick achieving his dream of scoring some wood from New York’s oldest bar, McSorley’s (“People have been spilling beer on this wood for over 160 years”); Cindy going through an old book of Rick’s guitar drawings (they have a touch of Robert Crumb about them); Rick talking movingly about why he makes his guitars in the style of Fender’s original Telecaster; and a sublime moment where an estate agent who’s selling the property next door for $6m pops in, obviously hoping to persuade Rick to do the same, then thinks better of it.
If there’s a minor quibble with the film, it’s only that the conceit that it all takes place in five days doesn’t really convince – for one thing, Rick appears to get the McSorley’s wood and make the guitar in that time – and seems unnecessary. Otherwise, this is heaven – or, as Cindy puts it in an Instagram post, #guitarporn – for guitar nerds and an extremely enjoyable and worthwhile film even if you can’t tell a Telecaster from a Gibson Les Paul.