Carmine Street Guitars is a new documentary film directed by Ron Mann. The movie explores the store Carmine Street Guitars over the course of five days, as famous custom guitar maker Rick Kelley crafts guitars made out of wood reclaimed from local New York buildings. It has played at festivals including the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
The film’s story is very minimal, as it is just taking a look at the score over a course of five days, yet it also manages to not feel like a commercial. Documentaries like this have a tendency to feel like they are doing nothing more but plugging the company at the focus of the movie. However, this film is more of a love letter to music and craftsmanship that simply uses this shop as a lens through which we see this point.
One of the main messages of the film appears to be to see the beauty in the small things, and the movie does a very good job in delivering this statement. Many people would normally think that art is made with a guitar not that a guitar is art in and of itself, and this film turns that on its head. Sequences of the movie in which you are watching Mann work allow the audience to understand and appreciate the level of hard work and detail that is in what he does.
Mann is certainly a very interesting subject, although the film doesn’t give him a whole lot of development outside of his work. Nonetheless, it is still quite easy to admire him because the movie (rightfully) portrays him as a master of his craft. On the other hand, the film does not do a very good job of showing the work of his apprentice Cindy Hulej. It would have been nice had this mentorship been explored with more depth.
The film is quick and breezy, clocking in at just an hour and twenty minutes. There was definitely time for the movie to slow down and explore some of the more subtle narrative hints, although as is, the film is still entertaining and educational. Watching the movie, it is easy to feel like you are learning about the intricacies of guitarmaking, especially when Mann begins to discuss the different sources from which he gets his wood.
One of the tools the film uses to keep the audience’s interest is music. The movie features some of the world’s most famous musicians coming into the shop (in a way that was likely pre-arranged — it is doubtful that this many familiar faces would visit the store in a period of only five days) and discussing the guitars with Mann. Frequently these world-renowned guitarists will test out the guitars, and the sounds they produce, even when just goofing around, are amazing.
On a technical level, the film is very impressive. Since a majority of the movie takes place within the store, the filmmakers had to take advantage of the confined location. Some of the shots are wonderful, as they use the guitars in the background to great effect. The interviews are some of the most well-framed in a documentary in a very long time. It is impressive that, despite these challenges, the filmmakers were able to pull off such a technical feat.
Overall, Carmine Street Guitars was a very good documentary. It won’t be for everyone — especially if you aren’t a big music person — but the filmmakers were able to pull a great feature-length film out of an unexpected place.
Carmine Street Guitars is now playing in select theaters.