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Carmine Street Guitars

A heartfelt tribute to music, craftsmanship, and a vanishing New York.


As cities around the world succumb to the relentless march of modernization and gentrification, documenting the hangers-on from the olden days – be they businesses, buildings, or people – becomes an increasingly urgent task. This feeling of the inevitability of progress is a constant below-the-surface subtext in Ron Mann’s documentary CARMINE STREET GUITARS, which portrays the day-to-day existence of the eponymous, decades-old Greenwich Village guitar shop.

The film centers around Rick Kelly, the shop’s owner, as he cuts, planes, and sands raw wood into one-of-a-kind instruments in his workshop piled high with salvaged boards and beams. The guitars are quite literally pieces of old New York, with most of the wood salvaged from the city’s buildings during renovations or demolitions, and much of it dating from before the Civil War. Fans of his instruments have included everyone from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed, and the customers who stop in over the course of the film include Nels Cline, Mark Ribot, Bill Frisell, and younger musicians like Kirk Douglas of the Roots and Eleanor Friedberger. (Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who appears as the film’s “Instigator” in the credits, also makes an appearance.) Each of these visitors takes a turn on the shop’s various guitars, in inspired low-key performances that Mann wisely presents uncut, providing a wonderfully raw and firsthand soundtrack.

The theme of continuity through multiple generations lies at the heart of the film, as the shop itself is run not only by Kelly, but also by his mother (who steals the show with her hilarious too-old-to-care attitude) and his young apprentice Cindy Kulej, who works alongside him with the same age-old tools and methods. Kulej helps bring the shop into the 21st century, curating its online presence (a task in which Kelly himself is utterly disinterested) while creating aesthetic embellishments to the instruments in the form of carving and woodburning. She also provides a welcome female perspective in the overwhelmingly male world of music and guitar shops in particular, confirming that even in such an idyllic shop, customers are just as likely to dismiss her as treat her as an equal.

The film’s story unfolds mostly through conversations between Kelly and his customers and coworkers, and while some of these setups feel a bit awkward (particularly towards the beginning, where interactions tend to feel a bit like a staged exposition for the shop), others explore genuinely fascinating territory, from Greenwich Village in the 1960s to Lou Reed’s later experiments with pre-tuned drone guitars. And while most of the talk understandably centers around the New York music scene, some strays into discussions of wood itself, from trees and their habitats to the chemical changes that occur when wood remains in a building over the centuries – in a very real sense the true basis of both the shop and the film.

CARMINE STREET GUITARS is both a love letter to old New York and, more subtly, a documentation of its ongoing homogenization. One of the film’s more awkward conversations isn’t a customer at all, but a real estate agent who is selling the neighboring building, to whom the normally garrulous Kelly has very little to say. The bulldozers of progress and gentrification are an ever-present menace throughout the film, but these are left to fade into the background, and the film runs its course on the same uplifting note on which it begins: with Kelly and a customer discussing the finer points of guitars and life.

John Peck


Kanada 2018, 80 min
Genre: Documentary
Director: Ron Mann
Author: Len Blum
DOP: Becky Parsons, John M. Tran
Montage: Robert Kennedy
Distributor: Real Fiction Filmverleih
Release: 29.08.2019


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