It’s fitting that Abel Ferrara, the man behind edgy tales about New York’s underbelly (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) and one of the least reliable and most undisciplined directors, would salute the history of Manhattan's legendary bohemian abode of debauchery. The free-form, erratic and absorbing Chelsea on the Rocks celebrates the haven for insolvent-but-creative personalities and artistic voices. The nearly 130-year-old red brick pile once considered an untouchable, impenetrable tower for hedonist (and doomed) writers, artists, musicians and free-spirits, has been recently claimed as New York’s equivalent to Hollywood’s castle of artifice, the Chateau Marmont. It has been turned into a boutique hotel venture for the rich elite run by a management company that shows complete disregard and disrespect for its formidable history.
A long time brand of the bohemian scene, the 250-room Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street was built in 1883 and has served as a hotel and residential building since 1905. It has offered a temporary and permanent home to an army of famous, infamous, unknown artists, musicians, filmmakers and other hipster types, from Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller to Warhol Factory actor Paul America, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, the Grateful Dead and Quentin Crisp. Ferrara intersperses his archive material with scrappy dramatic re-enactments of famous moments at the hotel and interviews of current and recent residents, including actors Ethan Hawke and Dennis Hopper, director Milos Forman and cartoonist R. Crumb, who tell stories of fires, puking, snorting, suicides, overdoses, orgies, wild parties and other real-life intrigue that went on behind the cultural icon's welcoming and alluring doors. The talking heads also pay tribute to the jovial Stanley Bard (also interviewed), who owned and managed the hotel for decades, and whose soft spot for artists and lax attitude toward credit and rent collection created a sanctuary for many financially-challenged residents. He allowed creative types to fall behind on their rent and had wealthier tenants pay more to subsidize the truly starving artists. In 2007 the shareholders decided cool hotels like the Bowery made for a more lucrative business than the ramshackle establishment run by Bard, and voted him off as manager.
Yes, Leonard Cohen slept with Joplin at the Chelsea in the ‘60s and Andy Warhol shot Chelsea Girls in various rooms, but as we travel from room to room, it soon becomes apparent that the hotel is equally famous for celebrity dissipation and death—notably poet Dylan Thomas, who slipped into a coma from alcohol poisoning, and Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen, who was found fatally stabbed in room 100. Ferrara’s decision to reenact some of these events with completely inappropriate actors is a major error in judgment. Model Jamie Burke creates the worst Sid Vicious impersonation on record, while the always ridiculous and never believable Bijou Philips can’t even make an impression as a shrill Spungen. The Janis Joplin near-collapse sequence is even worse.
Like its maker, Chelsea is messy, relaxed, eclectic and a bit crazy. Ferrara is by no means a great interviewer; he constantly interrupts, interjects profanities and incoherent commentary in a rasp, wanders into a shot at one point, and doesn’t even bother to make our life easier by identifying the interviewees with title cards, some of whom are hardly well-known faces. The celebrity interview quotient could have been much higher given that Sam Shepard, Patti Smith, Courtney Love and many more living celebrities stayed and lived there. However, Forman's segment is great; he reminisces about the wild days when he lived there as a struggling and penniless filmmaker (rent-free of course), and Ethan Hawke (who moved in after his marriage to Uma Thurman fell apart and Bard offered him a room for free so he could get her back) makes a surprisingly engaging storyteller.
Chelsea gradually grows in stature and the longer we spend inside its cockeyed world, it makes a weird kind of sense. Despite Ferrara’s efforts, Chelsea is able to charm quite often, especially with its grainy clips of the Grateful Dead jamming with the real Joplin and an amusing Hawke impersonating Bard telling a story about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. The often inscrutable but still fresh and surprising documentary manages to take its all-too-memorialized and romanticized subject not so seriously and yet treat it and the people around it with respect. Chelsea is a convivial portrait of a cultural beacon that draws its aura from all of the tenants who helped create its legend. It seems to ooze danger and joy and is an example of a grungy New York that no longer exists.
I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can't keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that's all, I don't even think of you that often.
(from Chelsea Hotel No. 2 by Leonard Cohen)