Chelsea Hotel Documentary Captures an Urban Horror Story

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel intimately documents the reconstruction of a haven for artistic excess.

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Belgian filmmakers Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt’s documentary, Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel, is a deeply moving spiritual deconstruction of a cultural landmark. The directors trust the viewer to know the history going in, allowing Dreaming Walls to capture the mood of the Chelsea. 

New York City’s Hotel Chelsea opened on 23rd St. in 1884. Its 12 stories of brick housed some of the greatest names across all the arts. Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain were among the earliest check-ins. Madonna planned her global domination, and later shot photographs for her book, Sex, on the eighth floor. Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey shot Chelsea Girls (1966) in the rooms the Factory members lived. Arthur C. Clarke wrote the screen treatment for 2001: A Space Odyssey in its rooms. Marilyn Monroe lived at the Chelsea as a young actor, and Arthur Miller stayed there after their much-later divorce. Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and the poet Dylan Thomas all found inspiration in the bohemian atmosphere. They hang as specters over the documentary, silent and emotionally removed spectators to a deeply moving change of scenery.

As the title suggests, Dreaming Walls is a haunting film. Sad and celebratory, it is an urban horror story where the spirits are being chased away. There is even a scene of subliminal possession, not by any demon, but by the angels of lights which passed through the walls. A young, African-American construction worker begins telling choreographer Merle Lister Levine, who has been living in the hotel since the 1960s, about feelings he gets walking into certain rooms. He says he looked the Chelsea Hotel up on the internet, and learned about all the artists who lived there, and made art there. By the time his segment is done, he is opening up about his dreams of being an architect, and singing “Mambo Italiano,” while the two of them dance in a stairway. In the moving and extremely playful scene, he appears to become a de facto resident, by proxy.

The ghosts are mere projections now, whether they emanate from the overlaid photographic images in the documentary or the imaginations projected onto those who gave the hotel its reputation. The last living foothold of the building’s legacy, the artists who maintain a permanent address at the hotel, are being banished to service elevators, away from the public’s eye. Developers are capitalizing on the counterculture melting pot’s past glory, turning the Chelsea into an upscale boutique hotel. The documentary raptly captures the spectral evidence stirred up in the wake of a demolitionist’s sledgehammer.

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A dinner sequence features the long-time residents discussing whether renovations alone will cover up the sex and drugs which rocked and rolled the walls, or if the hunger of artistic excess is cemented in the bricks. The film presents ethereal archive clips of singalongs, dance performances, and art collaborations which included entire segments of the building’s community. It also casts a lens into the desolate realities of the artists who killed themselves, accidentally or otherwise. So many drug casualties happened in the hotel, but there is no judgment, only fleeting mourning. The documentary gives the impression that ghosts who have yet to move on are freed from the walls as they are stripped to the beams.

The soundtrack by Michael Andrews, interspersed with snippets of period hits, poet Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl,” and Nico singing “Chelsea Girls,” effectively evokes the gestalt of the hotel within its time. Dreaming Walls unfolds in the present, through static camera placement and moving lenses capturing the subjects’ lives among the rubble with cinéma vérité intimacy and pace. It isn’t an overview of the history of the hotel, a daunting task for a single film, but an intuitive therapy session for those shocked by the change.

The film catches the remaining permanent residents of the Chelsea going about their daily tasks while their stories unfold, internally and out, much like the building which is being gutted very slowly to accommodate the hold-outs. Dreaming Walls is a story of transition. For some of the artists, this is not unfamiliar. Bettina Grossman tells the documentarians she slept in the hallway when her apartment was too cluttered with her art.

The approach is freewheeling, loosely structured, quirky, and highly poetic. There are no talking heads laughing over anecdotes, but full-bodied characters, eccentric and honest in the comfortable geography of their apartments. A few subjects never introduce themselves, others give little more than names, as home movie clips reveal their place in the architecture. Frames of super 8 footage of Vali Myers, who created her works in the building for generations, flicker by as archetypal representation, but the iconic artist is never identified. Some rooms are explored to the very last speck of dust, others are seen through the soft-focus reflections of the apartment windows. 

As real as the documentary feels in the subjects’ storytelling, it still manages to convey its message impressionistically. The picture forms through yellowed stills of arcane brilliance and fragmented memories of cheap Manhattan real estate.

Archival footage captures Stanley Bard, the son of one of the Chelsea’s longtime owners, who ran the hotel from the 1970s until 2007. He is remembered fondly, but with varying degrees of ambiguity. If an artist didn’t have the money for rent, Bard accepted artwork, which was displayed on the hotel’s walls. Under his management, the Chelsea also became a haven for drugs and prostitution. Dreaming Walls maintains a quiet power, never giving into easy sensationalism or tawdry opportunism. With a history which includes Nancy Spungen’s last fatal night with Sid Vicious, the directors should be applauded for their restraint.

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Duverdier and van Elmbt let the audience decide on the cultural conflicts with the capitalist reality of gentrification. The developers are not cast as unequivocal villains. Longtime resident artists Zoe and Nicholas Pappas see a hopeful future. Other hold-outs try to stall construction, in its ninth year at the time of shooting, with court cases. One tenant calls the ongoing works a “slow motion rape.” The Chelsea’s oldest resident, reclusive artist Bettina Grossman who died between shooting her interview and the film’s premiere, gives the most haunting testimony against new management.

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel opens at the height of the Chelsea’s famous infamy. Poet, and punk rock pioneer Patti Smith is on the roof talking about how many great poets, painters, and other artists threw up there. Baudelaire would be proud. The film closes on an uncertain future, where the ghosts of the past may very well be covered up by the joint compound spackled on the sheetrock. It is a sad document of happy recklessness, and the freedoms lost with success. The Chelsea Hotel will soon be a luxury dwelling, but its past dwellers luxuriated in something more precious.

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel hits theaters on July 8.


4 out of 5