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Carmine Street Guitars Tunes Into Legendary Vibe of NYC’s East Village

Thursday 04th, April 2019 / 18:00
By Noémie Attia

Photo by Sphinx Productions

When: Friday, April 5 to Tuesday April 9
Where: The Cinematheque
Tickets: $12, thecinematheque.ca

There is a little guitar shop in New York City at the intersection of Carmine and Bleecker Street, soberly named Carmine Street Guitars. For decades, Rick, its owner, has built electric guitars from the wood he has found in the city’s old buildings for the greatest musicians of the Village rock scene. They include: Lou Reed, Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith Group, and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who has a band called SQÜRL.

Photo by Sphinx Productions

Long-time Canadian documentary filmmaker Ron Mann spent a week in the guitar shop filming the comings and goings of all the artists looking for a new wooden axe. Because of the director’s age and the number of Baby Boomers featured in the documentary, one might think Carmine Street Guitars could be stuck in the past. And in a way, the film is nostalgic for the Village’s culturally explosive era, which Patti Smith describes so well in her memoir, Just Kids, the Village of Andy Warhol, the Velvets and Bob Dylan. This much-admired, fantasized-about period tends to perpetuate a myth of a golden age and, that we could never do better today — according to old guys with long, white hair.

However, Carmine Street Guitars also leaves room for the present and even for the future. Rick works every day with his apprentice Cindy, a young artist who burns her own art onto the guitars she makes. She posts pictures on social media and bridges the gap between her mentor and the modern age. Mann shoots fascinating close-ups of Cindy’s passion for woodworking, which she shares with her mentor.

Photo by Sphinx Productions

The documentary is shot in a very poetic way: the dialogues almost seem scripted and all the characters are in a tranquil, melodious mood that allows music to arise in the middle of their expressive yet simple conversations. The film offers floating moments where the spectator just stops and listens to the sounds of these extraordinary guitars played by talented people. Christine Bougie’s cosmic notes amaze as much as Eleanor Friedberger’s vulnerable performance. The artists are in a position that one rarely gets to see, trying new instruments. It makes their musical game even more authentic, as it happens on the spot.

Jamie Hince (The Kills) opens up about his hand injury, Stewart Hurwood pays homage to his deceased friend Lou Reed, and Cindy talks honestly about how men don’t take her seriously when she mentions she builds guitars. These open-hearted moments make us forget about the musicians’ fame, everybody is on the same level. The artists ask questions of Rick and Cindy, as if they were interviewing them. The director is completely absent from the film, and everything happens spontaneously and naturally.

If Carmine Street Guitars still doesn’t quite convince you, Rick’s mother will make you want to see the documentary. Dorothy Kelly is a very old woman, but stands straight and dusts the store energetically and almost carelessly. She does their accounting and answers the phone promptly, imposing her style. Her calm yet vigorous presence seems to hold the store together.

Carmine Street Guitars is dear to people’s hearts. Cindy found her passion in this place that accepted her; Rick expresses his love of wood and music, far from capitalist desires; musicians find new five-string vehicles while nostalgically conversing. Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan Band) concludes: “I like this guitar. It’s got a great vibe, much like this place.”

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