Tuesday 23 June 2020

Minor frets: "Carmine Street Guitars"

Incoming: a wave of nostalgia for bricks-and-mortar retail, either because Covid-19 means we've forgotten what it is to pop to the shops, or because popping to the shops is ultimately a phenomenon destined to go the way of the dodo, Covid or no Covid. Next week sees the release of The Booksellers, a documentary centred on the kind of poky holes-in-walls that have achieved the impossible and held out against the tyranny of Amazon 1-Click™. This week's doc Carmine Street Guitars pays fond, slightly indulgent tribute to an emporium that offers a service and experience you'd be hard-pushed to find online: a bijou Greenwich Village mainstay, run by Rick Kelly with assistance from his mom Dorothy, which deals in the manufacture, sale and repair of instruments carved by hand out of wood retrieved from prominent New York City landmarks. (A Kelly guitar has a story to tell even before it strikes up a tune.) The narrative writer Len Blum and director Ron Mann (who may just have the exact right name to be directing a documentary about a guitar shop) have constructed to show this place off in its best light is a mellow week-in-the-life number. Musicians drop by, sometimes playing a few chords; Kelly, a stalwart of the Greenwich Village scene dating back to the Hendrix era, dredges up an anecdote or two; and somehow, somehow, the shop staves off the forces of gentrification for another day.

The film that emerges from this selective observation is a cross between those reality-TV shows set in testosterone-filled backrooms and Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's enjoyable, under-revived collaborations Smoke and Blue in the Face. (Jim Jarmusch, whose cameo was a highlight of the latter movie, shows up again here, and promptly contrives a very Jarmuschian riff about beetles eating his elm trees.) It was often a bit too reality-TV for this viewer's preference, to be completely honest. You see and hear the directorial prompting when peroxide-locked apprentice Cindy Hulaj confronts Kelly as to his indifference to the shop's Instagram account ("You need to get into the 21st century"); the point is that Kelly values craft over celebrity, and sure as hell doesn't need the easy affirmations of the digital age, but it's as artlessly made as it would be by the average episode of Salvage Hunters. Rather more appreciable is the joy the film takes in simply hanging out (god, remember that?), whether in the CSG workshop, where Mann's camera appears fascinated by the planing, bevelling and application of varnish, by sawdust floating into the air; or front-of-shop, where we invariably find one of New York's hipper residents gawping at some new artisanal wonder Kelly sets before them. A closing-credit hat-tip to the late Jonathan Demme just about feels right, though it's a film that requires some patience, a pre-existing interest in guitars as pieces of kit, and possibly the ability to be starstruck in the presence of Jamie from The Kills. Either way, there almost certainly won't be a 2020 release more specifically tailored to a demographic of 45-to-64-year-old males - but then, heck, it was Father's Day last weekend. Dads need playthings, too.

Carmine Street Guitars will be available to stream from Friday.

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