As promised “Carmine Street Guitars,” the new documentary from Ron Mann, is about guitars. Beautiful stringed instruments hand made with love by artesian Rick Kelly. But it isn’t just about guitars. Sure, we hear music, solo performances by pickers and grinners like “Captain” Kirk Douglas, Lenny Kaye, Eleanor Friedberger, Charlie Sexton and Bill Frisell, but it’s about tradition and the personal connections between creators and their instruments.
For decades Kelly and his shop Carmine Street Guitars has been a Greenwich Village landmark. Untouched by modern conveniences like cell phones and computers, Kelly uses tools handed down from his grandfather, salvages old wood from New York landmarks like McSorley’s Old Ale House—the “bones of the city,” he calls them—to create one-of-a-kind instruments he says have a resonance that newer materials cannot duplicate. With him is apprentice, Cindy Hulej, a woodworker who burns beautiful designs into the faces of the guitars she creates.
It’s a slice of life doc, a week in the life of the shop as musicians come in, hang out and talk about guitars. Mann creates a rhythm that echoes the slow pace of life inside the store. Kelly is soft spoken, an old-school artist in a rapidly changing city, somehow dodging the homogenization that is putting people like him out of business. His icy demeanor toward a high rolling real estate agent tells you everything you need to know regarding his feelings toward the people who value glass and steel over heart and soul.
“Carmine Street Guitars” is an ode to tradition, to artistry, to slowing down. It’s an understated hang-out movie that has as much resonance as the old wood Kelly uses to make his guitars.