Maverick helmer Abel Ferrara, best known for his tales of Gotham’s concrete-scraped underbelly (“Bad Lieutenant,” “King of New York”), salutes a Manhattan landmark in docu “Chelsea on the Rocks.” A skittery, rambling but often absorbing portrait of the Chelsea Hotel, pic shuffles together vintage archive footage, scrappy dramatic re-enactments of famous moments at the hotel, and original interview material in helmer’s first go at docmaking in more than 30 years. Projection in Ferrara’s hometown is a cinch, while flitting presence of various famous names should ensure fest bookings and maybe a limited run theatrically before ancillary afterlife.
Built in 1883 and serving as a hotel and residential building since 1905, the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street has long been synonymous with the bohemian scene, offering a temporary and permanent home for a host of famous, infamous and vaguely known artists, musicians, filmmakers and other hipster types, from Warhol Factory-thesp Paul America to the late ’50s artist Michele Zalopany. Residents Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, the Grateful Dead and Quentin Crisp are just some of the figures mentioned or seen in archival clips.
There have been scores more big names pic doesn’t mention, but “Chelsea on the Rocks” never attempts to set itself up as a sober history (perhaps an oxymoronic concept, given the Chelsea’s rep for hedonism). Instead, Ferrara intersperses his archive material with interviews of current and recent residents, including thesps Ethan Hawke and Dennis Hopper, helmer Milos Forman and cartoonist R. Crumb, who tell stories of fires they survived, overdoses they lived next door to, and wild parties they attended.
All pay tribute to Stanley Bard, also interviewed here, who owned and managed the hotel for years, and whose laid back attitude toward credit and rent collection created a haven for so many financially unstable residents. The impetus to make the docu stems from the fact that Bard, for reasons never fully explained, has lost control of the hotel to property developers who hope to turn it into Gotham’s answer to Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont for the rich elite.
According to his credits, Ferrara has made only one other docu in three decades of steady filmmaking, the little seen short “Not Guilty: For Keith Richards” (1977), and, based on evidence here, Ferrara is no great shakes as an interviewer. He constantly interrupts, wanders waywardly into a shot at one point, and shows no interest in making life easier for the aud by, say, putting up subtitles that would identify the interviewees, some of whom are hardly well-known faces.
Worse still, the clumsy, HD-shot dramatized scenes — of Sid Vicious’ g.f. Nancy Spungen (played by Bijou Philips) being stabbed and of someone who seems to rep Janice Joplin (Shanyn Leigh) partying — lessen the pic’s impact.
However, almost despite Ferrara’s efforts, pic can’t fail to charm at moments, featuring as it does grainy clips of the Grateful Dead jamming with the real Joplin and Hawke drolly impersonating Bard telling a story about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.