In the second half of Ron Mann’s utterly delightful and unique documentary Carmine Street Guitars, a well-dressed, well-groomed young man enters the title store in Greenwich Village and identifies himself as Adam Shalom, a Realtor who is selling the building next door. Shalom tries to talk about square footage, but Carmine Street Guitars founder and owner Rick Kelly barely looks up as he continues cleaning a fret. It’s a critical, uncomfortable moment in an otherwise intimate and inviting film; throughout the rest of the eighty-minute documentary, the soft-spoken Kelly talks guitars and craftsmanship with a stream of very cool musicians and his punk-looking young apprentice, Cindy Hulej. But Shalom’s arrival hearkens to one of the main reasons why Mann made the movie: to capture one of the last remaining old-time shops in a changing neighborhood, a former bohemian paradise that has been taken over by hipsters and corporate culture, by upscale stores and restaurants and luxury apartments. You’ll actually cheer that Kelly gives Shalom such short shrift, but you’ll also realize that Shalom and others might be knocking again at that door all too soon.
The rest of the film is an absolute treat. Mann follows five days in the life of Carmine Street Guitars; each day begins with a static shot of the store from across the street, emphasizing it as part of a community as people walk by or Kelly, who was born in Bay Shore, arrives with a piece of wood he’s scavenged. The camera then moves indoors to show Kelly and Hulej making guitars by hand, using old, outdated tools and wood primarily from local buildings that date back to the nineteenth century. Kelly doesn’t do computers and doesn’t own a cell phone; he leaves all that to Hulej, who posts pictures of new six-strings on Instagram. Meanwhile, Kelly’s ninetysomething mother, Dorothy, works in the back of the crazily cluttered store, taking care of the books with an ancient adding machine. Over the course of the week, they are visited by such musicians as Dallas and Travis Good of the Sadies (who composed the film’s soundtrack), “Captain” Kirk Douglas of the Roots, Eleanor Friedberger, Dave Hill of Valley Lodge, Jamie Hince of the Kills, Nels Cline of Wilco, Christine Bougie of Bahamas, Marc Ribot, and Charlie Sexton. Bill Frisell plays an impromptu surf-guitar instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” Stewart Hurwood, Lou Reed’s longtime guitar tech, talks about using Reed’s guitars for the ongoing “DRONES” live installation. “It’s like playing a piece of New York,” Lenny Kaye says about the guitars made from local wood while also referring to the shop as part of the “real village.”
Mann, the Canadian director of such previous nonfiction films as Grass, Know Your Mushrooms, and Comic Book Confidential, was inspired to make the movie at the suggestion of his friend Jarmusch, who in addition to directing such works as Stranger Than Paradise (which featured Balint), Down by Law, and 2016 NYFF selection Paterson is in the New York band Sqürl. Plus, it was Jarmusch who first got Kelly interested in crafting his guitars with wood from buildings, “the bones of old New York,” resulting in Telecaster-based six-strings infused with the history of Chumley’s, McSorley’s, the Chelsea Hotel, and other city landmarks. Carmine Street Guitars, which is far more than just mere guitar porn, opens April 24 at Film Forum, with Mann, Kelly, and Hulej participating in Q&As following the 7:45 show on Wednesday night, joined by Jarmusch, and after the 6:00 screening on Friday and 4:10 show on Saturday.