'Chelsea on the Rocks' rambles — and runs aground
A review of "Chelsea on the Rocks," a less-than-illuminating documentary about the fabled Chelsea Hotel, longtime home to artists and other New York characters. By Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.
Seattle Times movie critic
"Chelsea on the Rocks," a documentary by Abel Ferrara. 88 minutes. Rated R for language, drug content, some sexual material and brief violence. Varsity.
Abel Ferrara's documentary "Chelsea on the Rocks" appears to have been made for a remarkably select audience: namely, people who have lived in the Chelsea Hotel and know everybody there already. For them, this film will be a nostalgic revisiting of old friends and neighbors, of familiar hallways with wrought-iron railings and oft-told tales.
For the rest of us ... well, call it a missed opportunity. There are surely numerous stories to be told about New York's famed literary hotel, a vast brick pile in lower Manhattan that's hosted the likes of Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas (who died there), Nancy Spungen (ditto), Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol and Quentin Crisp, to name just a few.
After decades of cult status (including numerous artists in more-or-less permanent residence), its history is about to change: New management is evicting long-term tenants, cleaning the place up and re-envisioning it as a boutique hotel.
Ferrara, a New York filmmaker ("Bad Lieutenant," "King of New York"), clearly feels passionately about the subject; you can hear his rasping voice asking questions of the subjects, and cackling in appreciation at their replies.
But by not identifying the many artists and residents who speak in the film, he's left most audience members in the dark. And he lets many of the speakers ramble on, reminiscing about whatever seems to strike their fancy, making much of "Chelsea on the Rocks" a chore to sit through — like a home movie of a family that isn't your own.
Actress Gaby Hoffman, who spent much of her childhood living in the Chelsea, gets only a few minutes on-screen and deserved much more; the question of what it would be like to grow up there is fascinating, yet tossed aside.
And someone notes, of the restaurant, "Sam Clemens [Twain] and Nikola Tesla used to have lunch here." Now that, as opposed to a lurid re-enactment of Spungen's murder, is something I'd want to see.
There's a great movie to be made about the Chelsea Hotel; unfortunately, this isn't it.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
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