In ‘Carmine Street Guitars’ Instruments Hold the Weight of History

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History weighs heavy on Carmine Street Guitars, Ron Mann’s documentary about the Manhattan custom guitar shop of the same name. Owner Rick Kelly’s guitars, which he has made for Lou Reed, Bo Diddley, and countless others, aren’t just beautiful and charmingly craggy. They’re all minor missions to rescue a receding part of New York City; each guitar’s body and neck is made from a plank of salvaged wood, taken from buildings up to two centuries old before they collapse or get demolished. The guitars are, quite literally, pieces of history and, even more literally, part of the city.

As captured by Mann, the shop itself oscillates with that history, with every long bout of stillness (this is a strangely quiet film, considering its subject matter) playing as though the audience were taking in the spiritual heft of a cathedral. When Rick and his assistant, Cindy, are sanding and embossing guitars, there’s a soothing ethereality to how Mann shoots them. His editing pace is languid, and certain shots of wood being sanded down are primed and ready for an all-time great ‘Oddly Satisfying’ video compilation. When the rare musical moment does appear, and we’re treated to a guitar solo by Bill Frisell, Mann lets a spout of offhand guitar noodling turn into a beautiful, consummate moment – history in action.

But, even as Rick singlehandedly preserves and transforms New York’s architecture in the vibrations of guitar strings, he wears his role lightly. He’s an everyman. Like many guys his age, he’s near-allergic to social media. He speaks with a straight-forward, shrugging, but undeniable passion for what he does. It’s as though he sees the rescuing of Manhattan’s architecture as something any decent human would do. He’s a workman at heart, content to spend his days in the workshop and chatting with customers.

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These conversations are almost as fascinating as Rick’s approach to guitar craftsmanship. Like the guitars themselves, Rick’s discussions with “oh shit!” guest stars like Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas, The Kills’ Jamie Hince, and even film director Jim Jarmusch, are filled with affectations for yesteryear. They trade stories about the time they saw Hendrix in the flesh, or when a surgical accident left a guitar-playing finger paralysed. The shop becomes not just a haunt for ghosts of music’s past, or even New York’s. Rick and his customers bring themselves to the shop, too, and the film has a great love for the idea of older guys just shooting the breeze at the counter.

Blessedly, the film also avoids letting these conversations turn into a gruelling boys’ club. As compelling as Mann’s subjects are when they converse with Rick, there’s a sense early on that Cindy, his much younger, Insta-savvy assistant will be sidelined in favour of Rick himself. But the film cleverly comments on that boys’ club, giving Cindy a storefront conversation of her own with Eleanor Friedberger, where the two talk about the ridicule they each receive as women in a man’s world – Cindy a guitar maker, Friedberger a singer-songwriter.

Mann makes sure to point out that there’s a reason Rick’s work is so important. As he keeps the rest of NYC from fading in the city’s collective memory, the wolves are just next door for him: the building next door is getting sold. When Rick awkwardly waves off a visit from a solicitor working on the neighbouring building, it’s a fun scene, but it’s also a solemn reminder of why Rick’s work is important.

 

By Thomas Atkinson

Thomas Atkinson is studying journalism at City University of London, hailing from the New Forest. He has spent much of the past five years watching movies, and some of the past three years writing about them. His favourite films include Beau Travail, Zodiac, Heat, Only Angels Have Wings, Close-Up and Eraserhead. His life-force largely consists of Ted Danson’s bow ties in The Good Place, Pauline Kael’s books, and the intro to OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’, which he rightfully claims to be the greatest song ever written. He has Letterboxd.

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