Greetings again from the darkness. Art, sex, drugs, rebellion, counterculture, and even death … that’s the infamous history of New York’s Chelsea Hotel. And for the last decade, it’s been about renovation and ongoing construction, and the persistence of a few long-time residents. Co-directors Maya Duverdier and Amelie van Elmbt deliver an unconventional documentary in that it doesn’t focus on the Chelsea’s iconic place in NYC history. It doesn’t focus on the idols who created art here. In fact, the history of the place takes a backseat to the current residents and the never-ending construction, neither of which are as entertaining as the legendary past.
In a tease, the film opens with a young Patti Smith waxing poetic about what Dylan Thomas might have glimpsed from the same rooftop. This is followed by a montage featuring the instantly recognizable faces of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen (“Chelsea Hotel #2), Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Arthur C Clark, and Salvador Dali, amongst others. That gives you some idea of the place the building holds in the history of art. We then cut to the elderly residents trudging through hallways that are covered in plastic and littered with wires. Some chat it up with the construction workers, while others seem oblivious to the inconveniences – likely just resigned to the daily obstacles.
Most tenants took the buyout offer from the new owners, while others cling with all their might to the low-rent (both definitions) living they’ve grown accustomed to. The Christmas tree in the lobby may or may not indicate the season, and mostly we realize the misery in trying to live one’s daily life amidst the constant accompaniment of hammering, drilling, and sawing. This is more a Sociological case study on gentrification than anything else, despite the filmmakers attempts to tie in the past by projecting the famous faces on the walls.
The closest comparison to Hotel Chelsea is Los Angeles’ equally infamous Chateau Marmont. A 2008 documentary entitled, CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS, provides an interesting look at Chelsea’s historical relevance in the art world, something co-directors Duverdier and van Elmbt seem to care little about. There are two approaches to the Hotel Chelsea that might hold our interest: the past or the future. Unfortunately, this look at the present merely scratches something that doesn’t itch.
Opening in theaters and On Demand beginning July 8, 2022