TIFF Review: Carmine Street Guitars

Filed under: Reviews, Festivals

The legendary New York guitar shop that's the subject of Carmine Street Guitars is certainly worthy of a documentary, but coached dialogue and too-perfect camera blocking leave too much authenticity on the table.

The documentary is five days in the life of Carmine Street Guitars' staff: Rick Kelly, the unassuming but passionate veteran guitar builder; his apprentice Cindy, an early-20s artsy soul with a rock n' roll exterior; and Rick's mom Dorothy, who manages the books and dusts the stock.

Guitar makers aren't actors, which wouldn't be a problem if not for the filmmakers' insistence that this story be told without talking head interviews. Instead, almost every piece of new information is fed to us through predetermined set-ups and replies. This style doesn't suit the subject.

Cindy tells Rick how many likes a photo has on Instagram. Rick is disinterested. Cindy responds with stilted exposition, listing back to Rick all the ways in which he isn't tech-savvy. It's an awkward and boring way to communicate this to us, and unfortunately there's plenty more where that came from.

A parade of established musicians visit the shop, each strumming a few bars before asking a pointed question, and nodding through the well thought-out answer.

"What's that tool?" asks one visitor, as he watches Rick carve down a piece of wood.

Wouldn't you know, it just so happens this particular tool was passed down a couple generations.

These planned coincidences leave Carmine Street Guitars feeling less like a real snapshot of a unique place and time, and more like an episode of This Old House (Norm always conveniently walks in on Tom JUST as he's about to caulk those bathroom tiles, right?).

It reaches the point of ridiculousness when multiple cameras follow Cindy as she walks down the street towards the shop, stops and looks up at a "for sale" sign on the building next door, and then casually-not-casually mentions the asking price to Rick. Later, with the camera perfectly framing the entrance to the store (what are the odds), the slick real estate agent enters, simply to introduce himself, leave a card, and ask about the square footage of their building.

Yes, there's a point to make about gentrification, but so much more could've been said by Rick himself. The ominous entrance of this young guy in a suit (who fits the stereotype a little too perfectly to be believable) is a silly gimmick and a missed opportunity.

Yes, it's fascinating to learn about the guitars that have been built. And yes, there are beautiful moments to be found amid the storyboarded plot points. Rick talking about the guitars he made for Lou Reed, and an emotional celebration of Cindy's fifth anniversary working at the shop, hint at what a better film this could have been.

If you're a guitar nerd, or a New Yorker who walks past this Greenwich Village shop every day, Carmine Street Guitars may be worth your time. But for the layperson, the film would've benefitted from less writing, and a lot more riffing.

Tags: Tiff 2018, Toronto International Film Festival, Carmine Street Guitars

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Sharilyn has written on comedy, television, and film for publications such as The Toronto Star, The A.V. Club, and Vanity Fair, as well as on CBC Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @sharilynj.

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