CARMINE STREET GUITARS

★★★★

HEARTFELT #GUITARPORN

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
6th August 2019

Had a chat with any good movies lately? With most of today’s films going around flashing big wads of cash and in-your-face special effects, it’s refreshing to find one that just wants to carry on an interesting conversation with you in a trendy but laidback part of town. Ron Mann’s ‘Carmine Street Guitars’ is that kind of picture. Here’s a film you can sit down and shoot the breeze with, whether it’s about that old bar that used to be on the corner or the best guitar neck for the shape of your hand.

The latest documentary from director Mann (‘Comic Book Confidential’, ‘Tales of the Rat Fink’) covers a week in the life of Carmine Street Guitars, a long-running guitar store and a fixture of New York’s Greenwich Village.

Like Roy Hobbs carving a baseball bat from a lightning-toppled oak tree in 'The Natural', luthier Rick Kelly and his offsider Cindy Hulej forge guitars out of reclaimed wood, salvaged from New York buildings being demolished.

Reclaimed wood makes superior guitars because it’s already cured and seasoned. "The resin in the wood crystallizes and opens up the pores for vibration, creating resonance," Kelly says. These new instruments are shaped from King’s Wood - white pine timber that was barged down the Hudson River 200 years ago from the forests of the Adirondacks.

Behind the shop are rows of neat planks, labelled on each end with where they were scavenged from, such as salvaged pieces of Chumley’s, the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, McSorley’s Ale House, and various bits of Five Points-era lower Manhattan. Each scrawled note attests to their original address and date, their place in time. There’s a Catacombs of Paris vibe - it’s less of a storage room and more of a mausoleum of dead architecture, with wood instead of piles of bones. After trying out an instrument, Lenny Kaye, the guitarist from The Patti Smith Band, says admiringly: "It’s like playing a piece of New York."

Kelly’s old school methods are revered by a stream of legendary musicians who eschew mass-produced guitars. They wander into his cosy workshop, either to try out Kelly’s instruments (made in the style of Fender’s Telecaster), get their own tweaked, or simply chat about the wares with someone who understands their obsession. Captain Kirk Douglas from The Roots, jazz musician Bill Frisell, The Sadies (Dallas and Travis Good provide the score), Wilco’s Nels Cline (buying a guitar as a present for “bandleader, Mr Tweedy”), Christine Bougie from Bahamas - all of them walk into the store to exchange fascinating dialogue (touching on music, art and their own experience) and sometimes play a few licks.

But, generally, they listen in reverent awe to Kelly’s knowledge of guitars and the history of the era. These include reminiscences about seeing Jimi Hendrix play in the 1960s ("It wasn’t Jimi Hendrix then, of course... it was Jimmi James"), through to his unique technique for carving each instrument (he uses his grandfather’s old carpentry knife to shape the necks).

Kaye says at one point: "You build guitars, you sell guitars, you fix guitar... what don’t you do?" Kelly replies: "Computers. I don’t do computers."

That’s where Hulej comes in. Young, with a bleached-blonde blunt fringe and black eyeliner, Kelly’s five-year apprentice handles the social media for the store. She snaps photos of new instruments and adds hashtags like #GuitarPorn for Instagram (also in the business is Kelly’s 93-year-old mother, who answers phone calls, handles the accounting and cleans the guitars hanging from the ceiling with a giant feather duster).

Hulej’s real gift is as a talented woodburner - she crafts images of musicians, designs and lettering on the newly-made guitars. She discusses at length the challenges of working in an industry that’s so male-dominated, with clients sometimes dismissing her as a glorified shop assistant.

The rhythm and dialogue, heavy on laconically-delivered anecdotes and archaic trivia, is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's 'Coffee & Cigarettes'. In fact, it’s hardly surprising when Jarmusch pops in to chat about catalpa trees and get his guitar tweaked.

As Kelly explains it, Hulej walked into his store to chat, and he decided to take her on because he remembered finding it almost impossible to access support and training when he was beginning in the industry. These two kindred spirits embody the old and the new eras of musical blacksmith-ery and have a very touching relationship. We see Hulej poring over a sketchbook of guitar shapes that Kelly drew during the 1970s featuring surreal designs seemingly influenced by everything from Mobius to Robert Crumb.

The only frosty moment in the film occurs when David Shalom, a suit-wearing realtor, enters the store to tell Kelly he’s purchased the building next door and earmarked it for demolition (the surrounding neighbourhood is steadily being corporately gentrified). "I’m not much of a guitar player myself," he says as the air freezes within the store, "but I’m sure a lot of the guys in the office would go crazy for this stuff." He hands Kelly his card, who mumbles disinterestedly at the gormless younger man.

That scene aside, 'Carmine Street Guitars' is a very mellow film. It’s the inverse of Davis Guggenheim’s 'It Might Get Loud', another paean to the guitar that contrasted the playing and recording styles of guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. The refuge represented by the store brings to mind the neighbourhood cigar shop from Wayne Wang’s 'Smoke', with its milieu of eccentric locals – Kelly is an unconventional historian and storyteller in the mould of Wang’s hero Auggie Wren. The rhythm and dialogue, heavy on laconically-delivered anecdotes and archaic trivia, is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's 'Coffee & Cigarettes'. In fact, it’s hardly surprising when Jarmusch pops in to chat about catalpa trees and get his guitar tweaked.

The documentary doesn’t mention it but Kelly made Jarmusch's first guitar with wood from a New York building three years ago, after the filmmaker renovated his loft on the Bowery and gave the wood to Kelly. He turned the wood into two guitars for Jarmusch.

‘Carmine Street Guitars’ works so well because Mann ensures that the genuine passion for guitars and music felt by all the participants in the film reverberates out of the screen and into the hearts of the audience. It's the most enjoyable music documentary I’ve watched all year. You'll want to visit Rick Kelly's store, hang out, listen to him and enjoy his company.

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