TIFF Review: ‘Carmine Street Guitars’

Ron Mann affectionately observes the last of a dying breed

6 mins read

Carmine Street Guitars
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. Ron Mann
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)

There’s a great scene in Michael McGowan’s 2012 drama Still Mine in which James Cromwell sits at the family dinner table and runs his hands along every nick and scratch in the soft pine surface while fondly recalling memories of his wife and children. There are stories housed in the objects we cherish. If something is built to last, it contains history as it passes from hand to hand and generation to generation.

Ron Mann’s wonderful new documentary Carmine Street Guitars shares this philosophy evoked in the scene of Cromwell caressing the weathered woodwork of his table. It’s a film to soothe the soul. The doc profiles Greenwich Village guitar artisan Rick Kelly, who creates custom-made guitars with his assistant Cindy, and each guitar that emerges from the little shop on Carmine Street tells a piece of history. Kelly’s guitars refurbish pieces of wood reclaimed from the old buildings of New York that are rapidly being demolished to make way for condominiums, swanky restaurants, and franchise retailers utterly void of character. The shop itself has real character in the old mom-and-pop variety as Kelly’s 93-year-old mother, Dorothy, assists with the accounting and with keeping the guitars clean, while the wayward stockroom and workroom are evidence of a place that has endured over time. Kelly is pure analogue—he doesn’t have a cell phone or the whole Internet thing—and each guitar is a gift of handcrafted creation etched with care.

Making music doesn’t get more old school than it does in Carmine Street Guitars. Mann affectionately observes the last of a dying breed as he documents the daily goings-on in the store that invites musicians share history with each chord they strum. The film harkens back to Mann’s earliest and arguably best work, like the free jazz doc Imagine the Sound and the who’s who of rhythm and words Poetry in Motion, as he assembles a roster of notable musicians who visit Kelly’s shop to learn about his craft and jam on his guitars. The film has the energy of old friends riffing as the musicians enter the store one by one and have a conversation with Kelly that invites him to explain aspects of his store’s character. Jim Jarmusch pops by to discuss his favourite trees with Kelly, while Jaime Hince shows him how he plays guitar despite a paralyzed finger, which inspires the shopkeeper to recommend an instrument with a wider neck and explain how a bigger stem deepens a guitar’s sound.

In the front of the shop and behind the scenes, Kelly and Cindy delve into their craftsmanship as they reform seasoned wood into new tunes. The pair has great chemistry as Kelly’s apprentice inquisitively asks questions of the master, learning his craft while adding her own signature to the elaborate designs burned into the wood of select guitars. The camaraderie of the two draws out Kelly’s salt-of-the-earth character: he’s an old-stock man of few words, while Cindy, a plugged-in Millennial, uses tools like Instagram to bring Carmine Street Guitars into the 21st Century.

It’s not that Kelly is averse to change, and his stories of perfecting this guitars show how, like any good artist, he learns, observes, and refines his craft. However, preservation is Kelly’s art in a city that is rapidly changing. Mann finds an effective thread to highlight Kelly’s legacy as the guitar man claims a piece of New York history that has long eluded him. It’s a board from McSorley’s Old Alehouse that went up in the iconic Irish pub in 1854. “A lot of beers have been spilled on this wood,” Kelly observes as he displays the weathered board to Cindy before eagerly getting to work on it.

Carmine Street Guitars follows the trajectory of the McSorley’s Old Ale guitar through completion. Kelly constructs an instrument that embraces the character of the pub with scratch marks and vintage scuffs adding to the guitar’s one-of-a-kind sound. At the same time, Mann captures an act of historical preservation as the camera watches flecks of wood shavings drift through the air, carrying stories of New Yorkers long ago in the store’s intoxicating aroma. The film is a warm nod to artists everywhere who embed history into the magic they create and preserve it for years to come.

Carmine Street Guitars screens:
-Sun, Sept. 9 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 7:15 PM
-Thurs, Sept. 13 at TIFF Lightbox at 3:15 PM

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Courtesy of TIFF

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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