In order to find Carmine Street Guitars, a small storefront on a quiet street in Greenwich Village, you’d need to know exactly where to look. The shop’s front glass door is littered with bumper stickers from guitar companies all but hides what’s inside and in a bit of poetry, the view from the street is obscured by a tree, fitting since owner Rick Kelly is always inside whittling wood to make his own-of-a-kind electric guitars. Jim Jarmusch is given a special “instigator” credit for Ron Mann’s latest documentary, which takes its name from the store, presumably for pointing him in the right direction to find it, but once inside, you won’t want to leave, let alone looking past it any time soon.
Though Mann structures the film around the course of a work week, it feels like a great afternoon hang, with the fact the shop seems so tucked away and Kelly is so skilled at what he does giving way to a select clientele of musicians, all of whom are prone to playing a few bars either to test out a guitar or because the spirit moves them. As a result, Bill Frisell can be counted on to play a heartrending version of “Surfer Girl” or Wilco’s Nels Cline, in the store looking for a birthday present for Jeff Tweedy, can be heard jamming out. Watching Kelly swell with pride watching them play the instruments he created is entertainment on its own, but in fact, there’s more to “Carmine Street Guitars” than the music as Mann’s film becomes as much a profile of the humble guitar maker as an elegy to a world that’s rapidly disappearing, with single-minded craftsmen as Kelly being able to afford big city rent becoming rarer and rarer.
For evidence, the filmmaker needs to look no further than the wood Kelly sources for his guitars, tipped off to buildings from around the city that are being torn down, presumably to make way for new businesses. The older wood makes the sound of the guitars sweeter, Kelly insists – and given sound designer Ted Rosnick’s glorious mix, you won’t argue – but in incorporating it into his guitars, he’s inadvertently preserving the remains of species of trees that have disappeared long ago and by extension, saving a bit of the city’s history since he knows the story behind each of his creations and more than happy to share it with anyone who asks.
If there’s a hitch in “Carmine Street Guitars,” it’s that Mann imposes a framework upon the film in which those questions sometimes feel forced, with customers inorganically drawing the introverted Kelly out in conversation to talk about discovering rock music in the Village as a 16-year-old from Long Island (seeing Jimi Hendrix back when he was Jimmy James) and Kelly asking similarly rote questions about their lives. But the means justify the end and in some ways benefits the film since you can clearly tell when Kelly is passionate when the artifice falls away and removes any inclination of the far worse fate of taking the audience out of the store, a context which makes every exchange richer.
Like the great musicians who come in and out of Kelly’s shop, Mann knows how to hit the right notes and how long to hold them, creating a nice rhythm that allows the room for charming interludes with Kelly’s mother who feather-dusts the place for him and handles the numbers and his apprentice Cindy, who teases him for not yet joining the 21st century with his aversion to cars and computers. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a place here for him and with this lovely portrait, there’s at least some space reserved in your heart.