Head over to Greenwich Village, go up Bleecker Street, just a few blocks past 6th Avenue, and then make a left. Keep walking until you get to 42 Carmine Street. That’s where you’ll find Rick Kelly. The Long Island native with the gray hair and the slightly oversized black t-shirt might be ambling around the retail section of the storefront, which he opened up in 1990. He might be talking to his elderly mom Dorothy, who balances the books, answers the phones and dusts the framed pics of Kelly standing next to a who’s who of ax-wielders. He might be in the workshop in the back, making the same sort of handcrafted guitars he’s been building in one downtown place or another since the early ’70s, or possibly offering tips to Cindy Hulej, the 25-year-old who’s become his apprentice of sorts. (She also mans the store’s Instagram account, which is filled with enough shots of lovingly woodburned Fenders to earn its #GuitarPorn hashtag.)
But if he’s not out collecting wood from old Gotham landmarks, Kelly is almost certainly there, Monday through Friday, working away in his modest, cluttered little store. Occasionally, old friends will drop in — like Charlie Sexton or the Roots’ “Captain” Kirk Douglas or former Fiery Furnaces co-founder Eleanor Friedberger — to make a purchase or just talk six-strings. One day, Stranger Than Paradise star Eszter Balint might be picking a bluesy number over in the corner; the next, Jim Jarmusch may stop by to discuss bugs and his favorite types of trees. Like a lot of New York musicians and fellow hardcore guitar nerds, they love the sound these instruments make. And they love the vibe of the place, the sort of funky, throwback West Village joint that feels like time stands still once you enter the premises. “You need to move into the 21st century,” Hulej tells her boss at one point. “Why?” he replies.
There are any number of standout moments in Ron Mann’s loving tribute to this West Village institution, a shoebox of a shop dedicated to preserving the storied history of the city in more ways than one. Your personal favorite might end being be Kelly getting positively giddy over hitting the mother lode, i.e. timber from the famed saloon McSorley’s (“People have been spilling beer on this wood for over 160 years!”), or the owner and Stewart Hurwood, Lou Reed’s longtime guitar tech, talking about that signature V.U. droning sound. If you’ve ever wanted to see avant-jazz legend Bill Frisell casually play the surf-instrumental anthem “Pipeline,” you’ve come to the right doc. And while Mann is usually a big-picture type of filmmaker — see: the invaluable history lesson Comic Book Confidential (1988); the war-on-weed breakdown Grass (1999), he’s going for much more of a loose, intimate hang-out feel here. Gentrification does rear its ugly head, in the form of someone overheard raving about “an omelette with shaved fennel” they just had and a For Sale sign on the building next door. A realtor briefly comes sniffing around, visions of condo construction and six-figure rents dancing in his head. Kelly politely gives him the brush-off.
But mostly, Carmine Street Guitars tries to give viewers the sense of what it’s like to simply be there, which in and of itself feels like a privilege. You get to observe this artisan and his colleague do what they do best, courtesy of close-ups of wood being sculpted, sanded and scrupulously transformed. You get to eavesdrop on Lenny Kaye waxing poetic about Kelly’s ability to turn recycled materials into resonant works of art — “It’s like playing a piece of New York” — and Nels Cline gift-shopping for Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy. And you get the sense that you’re seeing all of this happen in a downtown institution, albeit a homey, unassuming one. At one point, Marc Ribot talks about the “invisible parts” of music that most people don’t get to see, like the folks making the instruments that play the songs or make the spaces where these things can be heard. “It’s about building a community,” he says late in the film, which almost feels like burying the lede. We’ve already watched a community walk through that door for over an hour and have basked second-hand in the warm, glowing feeling that place has given its regulars. How many movies have left you feeling that way recently? (The film is dedicated to Jonathan Demme, who could conjure that collective notion of belonging in a heartbeat. He would have loved this movie.)
And it’s that sense of being part of something continuous, and of giving others the sense that they can add their voices to that mix, that makes this small documentary somehow feel as all-encompassing as the city it’s set in. Carmine Street Guitars is more than just a testament to a long-standing family business. It’s a love letter — to New York, to the bohemians and musicians who still live there come hell or high water, to the art of crafting a damn fine customized Stratocaster, to taking pride in your work, to shooting the shit and most importantly, to finding a place for fellow freaks and misfits to call home.