Six-String Heaven

In the Documentary ‘Carmine Street Guitars,’ a Master Craftsman at Work

Rick Kelly, the mellow proprietor of Greenwich Village fixture Carmine Street Guitars, has been literally carving out his own niche for more than 50 years. A consummate luthier who turns unwanted reclaimed wood into bespoke electric guitars, Kelly is a throwback. Brooklyn has long since turned the word “artisanal” into a marketing hook, but this soft-spoken geriatric craftsman is a true, bona-fide artisan. His ethos: a contemplative connection between the durability of nature and the ethereal power of music. It’s pure. And it’s pure bliss.


CARMINE STREET GUITARS ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Ron Mann
Written by: Len Blum
Starring: Rick Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Jim Jarmusch, Bill Frisell, Eleanor Friedberger, Dallas Good
Running time: 80 min


 

Ron Mann’s new documentary captures Kelly’s work ethic beautifully. But don’t expect an approach high on buzzy-feedback cinematography and jitter-cut effects: this is a quiet film about quality. It’s thrilling to see a movie that celebrates how much love, care, and devotion can go into a manual task.

Kelly scours the city for discarded material, what he calls “the bones of New York.” Piles of planks, stacked to the ceiling, fill his workshop: wormy chestnut, old-growth white pine, rosewood, ebony, maple, most of it more than 200 years old. He’s scrawled places of origin on the plank ends: “Washington Mews,” “Chumley’s,” “Chelsea Hotel,” “Trinity Church.” His ax-shredding atelier is a virtual walking tour of the Big Apple.

A few pieces are from a bar on the Bowery called McGurk’s that later became a brothel. Some charred blocks came from a Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. He even sweet-talked his way into getting a board out of McSorley’s Old Ale House, the hallowed East Village watering hole that’s been operating since before the Civil War. “People have been spilling beer on this wood for over 160 years,” Kelly says with a grin.

Gimmick? Not so fast. Kelly recognizes value in refuse. As time passes, and the lumber ages, its resin crystallizes and makes the wood more resonant. It’s hard to refute. Bill Frisell pops in and plays a transcendent version of “Surfer Girl.” Nels Cline from Wilco noodles on one of Kelly’s creations and decides it’s perfect for Jeff Tweedy’s 50th birthday. “A guitar like this needs a good home,” he declares.

These Telecaster-style one-of-a-kinds bear the wrinkles and scars of aging, the natural patina that turns the irregular into something singular. And reincarnate. As Kelly points out, these used to be trees that turned into buildings and then became guitars. It’s a beautiful testament to repurposing, and completely out of step with the modern world. When the townhouse next door goes on the market for six million dollars, Kelly barely gives its young Realtor the time of day. But he does make a dark joke about maybe salvaging some wood after the new owners inevitably tear it apart.

In a disposable culture, Kelly recycles, restores, and repurposes. This is a man deep into his 70s whose 93-year-old mom Dorothy is his receptionist. Kirk Douglas from the Roots commissions a guitar and watches Kelly whittle down the guitar neck with a draw knife he got from his grandfather—who got it from his father.

Master craftsman and apprentice hard at work in ‘Carmine Street Guitars’.

Kelly’s self-effacing apprentice Cindy Hulej, a 25-year-old art school dropout adorned with punk jewelry and a halo of spiky white hair, is completely devoted to learning his craft. “He gave me a chance, ’cause he could tell I was serious, I guess,” she says. After starting from scratch, with little woodworking experience, she now knows her way well enough around the bandsaws, planers, pin routers, and sauntering irons to make guitars of her own. Festooned with burnt-lined etchings of everyone from the Traveling Wilburys to Jimi Hendrix, they’re testaments to analogue creativity.

To celebrate her fifth anniversary working for him, Kelly gets her a guitar-shaped cake so beautifully decorated and so hyper-realistic that even Cindy initially thinks it’s the real thing. He cuts it with a switchblade while her boyfriend jokes that Kelly changed her life. “He did change my life,” she says, then turns away and can’t talk. She’s too choked up. You will be, too.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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