Carmine Street Guitars follows five average days in a place that is anything but ordinary. Hidden away in Greenwich Village is a guitar shop where the instruments are cut and created by hand; usually with reclaimed lumber from demolished buildings around NYC. After opening one shop in the 1970s, founder of Carmine Street Custom Guitars Rick Kelly moved to the current location for his artistry in 1990. With Kelly’s mom acting as secretary to the shop and apprentice Cindy Hulej the whole operation is a very intimate affair.
Director Ron Mann acts like a fly on the wall throughout the entire movie, though he’s a bit more active than that implies. The documentary’s two directors of photography, Becky Parsons and John M. Tran, beautifully capture the ways Kelly and Hulej let the shape of the body and neck naturally reveal itself from whatever woods they are using. Hearing Huleji rib Kelly as a relic, as he doesn’t have internet at his house, or the enthusiasm with which Kelly discussed the days when Greenwich Village was the epicenter of art in NYC offers small delights.
“…beautifully capture the ways Kelly and Hulej let the shape of the body and neck naturally reveal itself from whatever woods they are using.”
One of the days Carmine Street Guitars captures is Cindy Huleji’s five-year anniversary. A friend brings her flowers, Kelly had a cake made to look like a guitar, and these kind acts bring the young artist to tears. It is lovely, though the main draw of the movie for most is probably going to be seeing the various musicians who shop there. Nels Cline, from Wilco, comes in to search for a present for frontman Jeff Tweedy. He and Kelly have a fun conversation about the vibe of a guitar and whether or not Tweedy will enjoy it as well.
Huleji encounters Eleanor Friedberg rocking out on one of the guitars Huleji made. There’s a little back and forth about how long she’s worked there and why she started. Huleji explains that it combines her love of music, art, and science into one fantastic job. However, these small moments are all there are to the movie. As a portrait of a unique place, screenwriter Len Blum fails to get into the history of the guitar shop, leaving out how the famous faces that love the place discovered it. Kelly has created guitars for Bob Dylan and has signed pictures of several other superstar musicians. While around the store they might be window dressing, for an audience who may have never heard of Rick Kelly before they are windows into a more interesting story than the one playing out.
“…acts like a fly on the wall throughout the entire movie, though he’s a bit more active than that implies.”
This lack of purpose makes a lot of the film dull. Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej are fascinating people, and seeing Kelly’s dream of getting wood from the oldest bar in New York comes to fruition is cool. However, none of those moments, pleasing though it is to watch, are strong enough to pull the viewer through all hour and twenty minutes of the production. Whenever it focuses solely on the workers there, such as Kelly’s mom’s constant battle with a crooked picture frame is charming. However, the conversations with all the musicians who walk in blur together for anyone not incredibly steeped into that world.
Carmine Street Guitars sounds like it’d be far more engaging than winds up being. When the filmmakers focus on the artists who work there, it is moving and engaging. Despite how fun it is to see your favorite musicians in everyday life, there is not much they say that is interesting.
Carmine Street Guitars (2019) Directed by Ron Mann. Written by Len Blum. Starring Rick Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Nels Cline, Eleanor Friedberger, Eszter Balint, Dave Hill, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Sexton.
5 out of 10 Guitars