Carmine Street Guitars

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Carmine Street Guitars
"Becky Parsons and John M Tran's cinematography brings out every detail of the crowded rooms before us and puts us to close to the grain of the wood that we can almost smell it." | Photo: Courtesy of New York Film Festival

It's a small shop in the busiest city in the world with a loyal clientèle of grey-haired men who wander in and out without anyone giving them a second glance. To the untrained eye, Carmine Street Guitars might seem to be of little importance, but this is the workplace of Rick Kelly, one of the greatest guitar builders of all time, and before they faded into the anonymity of age some of those grey-haired men were worshipped as music legends. This modest little shop with its workshop in the back, its collection of posters and photos lovingly dusted by Rick's ageing mother, is a place of pilgrimage, a place of legend.

Ron Mann's documentary consists of the edited highlights of five days spent hanging around in the shop and workshop, rarely stepping outside. The result is compelling. It's not just the rock 'n' roll anecdotes or the famous visitors. It's not the enthusiasm of Jamie Hince or the unexpected arrival of Jim Jarmusch to introduce a rare guitar he acquired elsewhere and get Rick to make it sound better. At its core, this is the story of a master craftsman told whilst we watch him at work. You don't need to know the first thing about guitars to be drawn in by it.

Copy picture

Western culture doesn't really have an equivalent to the concept of a sensei these days, and perhaps Rick is best understood through the Japanese tradition. Though he had no teacher, initially learning his craft from books, he has devoted every moment of his life to it and, in the process, achieved something close to perfection. The one thing he doesn't do is work with computers, the cheap way to produce high quality guitars. Every instrument he produces is individual, its unique sound a major part of its appeal. He is most invested in a line of guitars made from pieces of old New York - wood reclaimed from burnt or demolished buildings, giving each guitar a history that precedes its own creation. The character of New York is present in every aspect of this film. It's part of what legends like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Patti Smith sought him out for.

Deeply in love with his work, Rick could clearly talk about it for weeks. He's modest but passionate and he has a warm humour that infuses the film. This is also the story of his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, who has a notable talent of her own and, with the benefit of Rick's mentorship seems destined to reach the same level and keep the craft alive - not bad for a kid who simply wandered into the shop one day and asked if she could try. She's 25 now and has something of the same shy charm but her eyes light up when she's discussing her work, which she does with complete certainty and commitment. We watch her turning the wood and inking finished pieces. She looks as if, like Rick, she could do this throughout her life and never lose her fascination with it. It's easy for the viewer to be entranced by this.

Becky Parsons and John M Tran's cinematography brings out every detail of the crowded rooms before us and puts us to close to the grain of the wood that we can almost smell it, especially when it's being cut and dust is flying. this visual depth is the perfect complement to the short but brilliant pieces of music performed by some of those who come to try the guitars out. Nobody who cares for the instruments enters and leaves the shop quickly. This is a place where people hang around to talk or sit and play. You too will be hesitant to leave.

Reviewed on: 30 Mar 2019
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Carmine Street Guitars packshot
A shop resisting gentrification.


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