Thursday, July 7, 2022

film review: Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel


Directed by Maya Duverdier & Amélie van Elmbt

ChinoKino score: B

Reviewed by Allan Tong

You may have heard of the Chelsea Hotel. It's that Gothic hotel-apartment that towers over 23rd street in Manhattan where artists of all stripes have stayed for days or years. Musicians like Maria Callas and Jimi Hendrix loved it for its thick walls and soundproof rooms. Arthur C. Clarke wrote the screenplay to 2001 here. Bob Dylan composed Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands here. Andy Warhol shot a film here in the mid-1960s. Leonard Cohen memorialized his stay in song,and Patti Smith wrote here. One or two Ramones resided here. Painters and sculptors of all styles call this home. In the past, they used to pay their rent with paintings that adorned the lobby.

Those walls are being renovated now as artistes are leaving. This documentary chronicles this transition as new owners spend years and millions of dollars upgrading this shabby-chic grand dame. New York teems with hotels but none is like the Chelsea. There's a lot of controversy and confusion surrounding this massive facelift. Unfortunately, Dreaming Walls doesn't clarify that. The viewer has to read that online, preferably, or track down earlier films. And there lies the double-edge sword in chronicling this famous refuge.


Instead, this documentary follows several long-term tenants, who continue to create as they navigate workmen hammering, upgrading and rewiring their hallways, floors and ceilings. Many tenants are old and frail. You wonder how long they can stay at the Chelsea and where they will go next.

Tenants allude to former manager, Stanley Bard, a legendary figure and gracious man who accepted paintings in lieu of cash to pay the rent. It's a pity that the film doesn't shine a light on Mr. Bard. When I stayed at the Chelsea 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of talking to him at length. He was patient and considerate. He respected his tenants' privacy--which was why folks like Janis and Jimi crashed here. 

I'm of two minds about Dreaming Walls. I come to the film knowing the history of the Chelsea, so I could appreciate the intimate profiles of these longtime tenants. They don't want to leave, and I understand. The filmmakers treat the Chelsea with reverence and respect. I also get that. However, those who have never heard of the Chelsea may be left scratching their heads. Why is this place so important? True, past documentaries and books have chronicled the history of the Chelsea, so why recycle that? Then again, a little more historic context would have filled in blanks for less-knowing viewers.

Distributed by Mongrel Media, beginning July 8.

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