Review: Carmine Street Guitars Celebrates Craftsmanship, Passion for the Handmade

This a single-location documentary that rarely strays from the interior of an unassuming little store/workshop, tucked away in the middle of a quiet block in New York’s Greenwich Village. In fact, the only time we leave the confines of Rick Kelly’s Carmine Street Guitars (the name of the shop and the film) is to film the outside from across the street. But over a brisk 80 minutes, director Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential, Tales of the Rat Fink, Grass) shoots a slow parade of both notable and lesser known guitarists as they step into the decades-old store (opened in 1990) where Kelly and his apprentice Cindy Hulej handcraft guitars using wood from demolished buildings all over the city, many of which were built in the late 1800s.

Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center

Kelly and Hulej are artists to the core and are recognized for their custom works by players such as Lenny Kaye (of the Patti Smith Group), Charlie Sexton (from Bob Dylan’s band), Jamie Hine of The Kills, Nels Cline of Wilco, Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces, Kirk Douglas of The Roots, Bill Frisell, and even avid player Jim Jarmusch. They don’t just come in to buy something off the rack; they stay to talk, tell tales, and play, testing out particularly beautiful-sounding instruments in private performances for the two employees.

Kelly makes the point that he’ll never move from the space or retire because the craft of guitar making on his level isn’t taught in schools. After taking one look at his tools and workspace, you get a sense that after he goes, many of these customers will have to go back to factory-made instruments, although Hulej is quickly learning the trade and applying her art school training to some truly stunning designs that even Kelly finds impressive. The film moves through a typical week in the shop, including a visit from a real estate agent who is selling units in a building he recently purchased on the block, who stops by to introduce himself, but you get a sense he’s scoping the place out. Kelly barely looks up from his work long enough to say hello to the weasel, and the scene provides the film with its only moment of drama.

Director Mann and every person who sets foot in the shop recognizes the place as a temple and Kelly as its deity. Mann allows his camera to simply exist in the space, rather than interrupt conversation by trying to interview people. It’s as if he just happens to be there when magic is being created and artistry is at play. I adore witnessing craftsman ply their trade, and Carmine Street Guitars is a tribute to a dying breed of musicians and music enthusiasts who can tell the difference between something made by machine and something created by hand with passion. I adore this film.

The film opens Friday in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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