Ron Mann has documented a quaint little artisanal shop in Greenwich Village, New York. Part workshop/production house, and part storefront, Rick Kelly’s boutique is tiny and crammed full of handcrafted Fender Telecasters. Carmine St. Guitars lets the viewer into the world of the handmade art of guitars. Kelly uses lathes and old handheld tools to carve, smooth, and shape everything from neck to body. He has only two assistants. A secretary, and an artiste who started by burnishing intricate designs into the wood, and at the age of 25, now helps build the actual guitars as well.
Guitar aficionados both new and old come to Kelly’s shop especially to get their strings replaced when they could go to any commercial guitar retailer. They come in and try and/or buy unique pieces with character. They exchange musical anecdotes with the owner. The musicians themselves are the storytelling vehicle. They walk into the store and ‘interview’ the owner and his employees. Mann has turned the musicians into his mouthpiece documentarists, which is an interesting way of presenting the information to the viewer (instead of having the filmmaker direct the flow of questions). Bill Frisell, Charlie Sexton, Christine Bougie, Marc Ribot and even film director Jim Jarmusch are among those who interact with Kelly and his staff. The documentary mechanism is a little bit stiff but it does its job.
Playing one of Kelly’s works of art is like playing a little piece of NYC. Kelly upcycles all his wood from dumpsters, abandoned buildings or similar. He knows the history of the locations where the wood comes from. After rescuing the wood, he repurposes them into fantastic, one of a kind guitars with bumps and scratches and irregularities. He takes care to always note which location the slabs of wood came from. This is much different than collecting junk from a scrap yard, where nobody can be sure of the wood’s source. As noted by Charlie Sexton, the flaws in the raw wood are like scars. Kelly agrees that these are like wrinkles on a human face – the lines tell a history.
When asked by his 25-year old Instagram-scrolling assistant, why Kelly doesn’t move into the 21st Century, he asks “Why?” Carmine St. Guitars’ owner is perfectly content without a cell phone. Instead he enjoys his racks of wood, and the scent of pine. He plans to continue making special guitars for the rest of his days, even if it doesn’t bring in much money. The love he has for guitars and for wood is presented to the end user as a playable work of art.
The original (guitar-laden) score was done by Toronto’s The Sadies, whose brothers Dallas and Trevor Good appear as the first ‘interviewers’ in the shop.