Chelsea on the Rocks
Woozy days and nights at a memorable hotel
Watching “Chelsea on the Rocks’’ is like being buttonholed at a New York bar on a rainy afternoon by an ex-junkie three stools down who proceeds to lay on you an endless series of tall tales concerning people whose identity is never quite clear and who may no longer be alive. The longer the guy talks (which is as long as you’re buying) the more you sense he actually is somebody, or was somebody, and that the ghosts he’s telling you about mattered and that maybe you’re getting history the only way it deserves to be told.
The barfly in this case is Abel Ferrara, the anarchic director of “Bad Lieutenant,’’ “Ms. 45,’’ and other jagged shards of New York genre filmmaking. “Chelsea on the Rocks’’ is his documentary about Manhattan’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, home of artists and beautiful losers. Dylan Thomas lived here when he drank himself to death. Andy Warhol shot “Chelsea Girls’’ in its rooms. Janis Joplin performed an act on Leonard Cohen he later memorialized in the song “Chelsea Hotel.’’ Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen here, even if Ferrara has different ideas about what really happened.
Actually, “documentary’’ is the wrong word for this movie. “Impassioned scrapbook turned upside down and dumped on the kitchen table’’ would be more accurate. Because Ferrara happens to live at the Chelsea and because he has no interest whatsoever in objective distance, the movie doesn’t inform, it unfolds - and staggers and falls down and gets up and has a smoke. This is not inappropriate.
For instance: Ferrara interviews a great number of longtime tenants, artists, shut-ins, and whatnot. Who are they? If you have to ask, I guess you don’t deserve to know, since “Chelsea on the Rocks’’ doesn’t bother with on-screen IDs. Whoever they are, they have their own tales to tell of boho grandeur and degradation: The couple making love on the fire escape, the crazy man who slashed the lobby paintings, the lady who fell asleep with a pot on the stove and was subsequently drowned by the fire department.
Among the identifiable character witnesses are actors Ethan Hawke and Dennis Hopper, cartoonist Robert Crumb, and director Milos Forman, the latter greeting the Chelsea’s aged and ousted owner, Stanley Bard, with the great affection the man deserves. For decades Bard ran the hotel as a camp for misfit creative souls - archivist/musicologist Harry Smith owed $30,000 in back rent until the Grateful Dead paid some of it off. Now younger family members want to turn the building into a functional place of business.
Well, of course they do: The Chelsea was a dream sustained on the counterculture idealism of a New York that no longer exists. “Chelsea on the Rocks’’ is most touching as a gallery of aging hipsters who time has passed by and whose backs are against the wall. That includes the filmmaker himself, a shaggy, gravel-voiced presence behind the camera and occasionally in front of it.
Ferrara goes in for ill-advised reenactments every so often: Janis Joplin (Shanyn Leigh) partying her talent away to the consternation of her neighbor (Grace Jones!); Nancy (Bijou Phillips) struggling with a drug dealer (Adam Goldberg) while Sid (Jamie Burke) lies nodded out on the bed. These sequences tip the movie’s engaged sloppiness over into amateur hour. But, then, everyone at the Chelsea was putting on a show in one way or another. You may not learn much about the hotel itself from “Chelsea on the Rocks,’’ but you come away knowing exactly what it was like to live there.