Carmine Street Guitars Rick Kelly Cindy Hulej

Year: 2019
Director(s): Ron Mann
Writer(s): Len Blum
Region of Origin: US
Rating: n/a
Color, 80 mins

Synopsis: Five days in the life of fabled Greenwich Village guitar store Carmine Street Guitars. (source)

Though they’re hardly the end of the line, rockstars get all the glory. In reality, there’s a simple but unsaid truth – guitar heroes are nothing without the instruments they bond with. This is at the core of Ron Mann’s Carmine Street Guitars. His latest is an affecting doc that centers on luthier Rick Kelly and his apprentice (resident pyrorapher Cindy Hulej) as their creations fall into the heads of some of the generations greatest artists. Fashioning guitars from salvaged NYC landmarks, the duo’s instruments give reclaimed wood a new chance to sing.

The doc candidly follows Kelly and Hulej for one week. In that time, they acquire new materials, start new projects and talk shop with a who’s who of NYC guitar greats. Bill Frisell stops in to reminisce about the surf rock that he grew up on. Wilco’s Nels Cline shops for a present. The Kills’ Jamie Hince tries some of Kelly’s creations and talks about how a life-defining injury has changed his guitar playing. Jim Jarmusch walks in to get a new acoustic guitar set up. Others like Eleanor Friedberger, Eszter Balint and Christine Bougie get extended, impromptu performances that bring Kelly’s work to life. It all caps off with some introspective words by Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Ceramic Dog) and Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan), who tie together the film’s ideas of a community amidst a changing scene.

Carmine Street Guitars review

If there’s one thing the film does so great, it’s capture Kelly and Hulej’s small, but thriving corner of the world. Stepping into the shop, we get the idea that this is a place that exists outside of trends or fans’ unknowing gaze. Above all, it’s untouched by Greenwich Village’s shifting tides and a rock scene that’s constantly reinventing itself. Mann captures both Kelly and Hulej in quiet, pensive moments, navigating the outside digital world with their defiant woodcraft. One of the film’s highlights is Kelly talking about how the reclaimed wood of NYC (which he calls the bones of old New York) becomes more resonant as time goes on. The film even captures Kelly scoring wood from one of his dream sources – McSorley’s Old Ale House, and then turning it into a one-of-a-kind guitar. 

Carmine Street Guitars proves that Kelly’s art is just as important as the notes that we here on a finished song. Kelly and Hulej are true artisans who love what they do and do it on their own terms. The relationship Kelly has to NYC in particular is awe-inspiring, allowing guitar players from all walks of life to not just take part of history, but also recreate it themselves.