An Ode to Guitar Heroes’ Hero at Hamptons Doc Fest

“Carmine Street Guitars”
Rick Kelly, right, the proprietor of Carmine Street Guitars, and Cindy Hulej, a virtuoso with a wood-burning pen, are seen surrounded by the tools and materials of their trade, among them stacks of vintage pine.

Some documentary films illuminate little known people or places, while others take fresh looks at subjects that are more familiar. Unless you are a guitar aficionado, “Carmine Street Guitars,” which captures five days in the life of the Greenwich Village guitar shop and was shown during last week’s Hamptons Doc Fest at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, belongs to the former category. 

Several years ago, the Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann was at the Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tenn., where he heard Jim Jarmusch, the independent filmmaker and musician, talking about the shop’s proprietor, Rick Kelly, and his unique handmade guitars.

“So I asked, ‘Who’s Rick Kelly?’ ” Mr. Mann said during a discussion after the screening of the film on Friday. “Jim told me all about Rick, and the next day he was on me, saying I had to go to the store, and that’s how the film happened.” Joining Mr. Mann in the discussion Friday were Mr. Kelly; Cindy Hulej, his apprentice; G.E. Smith, the noted blues-rock guitarist, and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, the artistic director of the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, which co-presented the program. 

“I’m so happy they made a movie about Rick’s store and Cindy and what goes on there, because it’s real, it’s the most real place you could ever walk into,” said Mr. Smith, who brought to the conversation two of his own Kelly-made guitars.

Mr. Kelly, who grew up in Bay Shore, was studying sculpture in art school in Maryland in the late 1960s, when he began collecting and working with ancient woods. “I had no money, and I was always looking for cheap wood,” he said. Mr. Kelly was already making guitars while still in college; he opened his shop in New York in the late 1970s. 

“The sound from old wood is guaranteed to be great,” he said, “because when the wood sits indoors for 170 years, the alchemy of hot and cold, especially when its closer to the roof, makes the wood get blackened in color, and all the resins in the wood crystallize and disappear.” As a result, the vibrations travel better through it.

“Conifers have been used for over 5,000 years as soundboards for acoustic instruments, especially stringed instruments. Stradivarius actually used pine for the tops of his violins, not spruce. So I knew it would be good.”

A chance meeting with Mr. Jarmusch, who gave Mr. Kelly some pine roof beams from his Bowery loft with which to build a guitar, led to Mr. Kelly’s embrace of New York pine, which had been lumbered in the virgin forests of the Adirondacks two centuries ago and shipped down the Hudson River for the construction of neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Kelly calls the wood, from which all 1800s buildings were framed, “the bones of old New York City.”

Mr. Smith noted that the big guitar companies cannot use wood the way Mr. Kelly does because they have to make “hundreds of guitars, real fast. They build some great guitars, but they don’t have what Rick’s have.” 

The reclaimed wood Mr. Kelly uses is full of nails when he finds it. “We try to get all the nails out, but sometimes a nail will break off, and if the band saw hits the piece of nail you need a new blade. A factory isn’t going to deal with getting nails out of wood.” Mr. Kelly said that he and Ms. Hulej turn out an average of three or four guitars each month.

The wood is a big part of the story, but only a part. The film documents five days at Carmine Street Guitars, a narrow storefront in whose front room, bedecked with instruments, Mr. Kelly’s 93-year-old mother, Dorothy, keeps the books and maintains the shop.

Mr. Kelly and Ms. Hulej design and build solid-body guitars by hand in the back room. In one sequence, Mr. Kelly picks up a piece of wood from McSorley’s Ale House, the legendary East Village Bar that dates from 1854. That piece of lumber becomes a through line, as the film follows its transformation from a chunk of pine into a finished guitar.

Ms. Hulej has been with Carmine Street for more than five years. When she was an art student with a full scholarship to the Pratt Institute, she wanted to build guitars. “I knew that Rick was number one in New York, so I decided to walk into Carmine Street and tell him my story. He said, ‘I can’t pay you.’ I told him I just wanted to learn to build, and he took me into the workroom, and I’ve been there ever since.”

From the outset, Ms. Hulej’s intricate wood-burned designs and images — one guitar features stunning portraits of the five Traveling Wilburys — distinguished many of the guitars, and she eventually began building her own.

The film is also punctuated by visits to the shop by a cavalcade of musicians, among them Nels Cline of Wilco, the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, Kirk Douglas of the Roots, the house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”; Marc Ribot, the free rock-jazz virtuoso; Charlie Sexton of Bob Dylan’s band; Christine Bougie of the Bahamas, who delivers a riveting performance on a lap steel guitar, and Mr. Jarmusch. 

Most of the musicians perform extended solos on the shop’s guitars, turning the film into an informal master class in guitar virtuosity. “I’ve met a lot of great guitar players at Rick’s store,” said Mr. Smith. “It’s so welcoming when you come in there. The reason the guitar players play so well in the film is that they’re comfortable in there.” Because he was on tour during the filming, Mr. Smith does not appear in the film — except in a photograph on the shop’s wall.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Mann’s approach to the film was inspired in part by the films of Mr. Jarmusch, specifically “Paterson,” which also has a five-day structure, and “Coffee and Cigarettes,” which consists of people talking. “I stole from Jim,” Mr. Mann said, “but he was good with this. After all, he pushed me into this thing.”

Mr. Mann also acknowledged the subject of his 2014 film “Altman.” “Robert Altman made these movies that were really big, but he also made smaller films. I looked closely at his ‘Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ to see how he worked in such a small space.” The skeleton crew consisted of two cameras, a sound person, and an assistant — “and someone watching the door.”

Asked by Ms. Vallan to situate the film within his larger body of work, Mr. Mann said, “My mentor was the filmmaker Emile d’Antonio, and he once told me there are two reasons for doing anything: You either love something intensely or you dislike something intensely. I fell in love with Rick and Cindy and Carmine Street Guitars. Everything I do is directed by falling in love with something.”

Post-screening panelists, left to right, Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan, Ron Mann, G.E. Smith, Cindy Hulej, and Rick KellyMark Segal
G.E. Smith displays two of his Kelly-made guitars while Ron Mann, Cindy Hulej, and Rick Kelly looked on. Mark Segal