Maverick director Ferrara may not seem like a documentary kind of guy—doing research, interviewing people, following up on leads, etc. Yet Ferrara found a way to adapt his ramshackle style to the documentary format, and his new Chelsea on the Rocks works spectacularly. For the film, Ferrara checked himself into New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, the home of many writers, artists and filmmakers over most of the past century, as well as the last stop for many lost, desperate souls (including Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen). For six months, he roamed the hotel’s halls and rooms, talking to residents.
Ethan Hawke talks about how the hotel’s (former) manager, Stanley Bard, gave him a free room when his marriage was crumbling. (Hawke directed his own movie about the hotel, 2001’s Chelsea Walls.) The director Milos Forman has a similar story: He stayed free for two years while scrounging up early film work. Forman also tells an amazing story about a fire in the building and the resulting death of a tenant. We hear other stories about spectral drug dealers (nobody ever sees them), as well as actual specters that enter people’s rooms at night. A man tells a story about longtime resident Harry Smith, with a bohemian-style business card as long as your arm. Some claim to have known Sid and Nancy. And Robert Crumb turns up to talk a bit about Janis Joplin.
Ferrara, just off-camera, sometimes responds with amazed profanity to some of the tales (and once or twice walks into the shot). Using actors in some scenes, Ferrara re-creates wild parties and scenes from Vicious’ and Joplin’s lives. And occasionally he mourns, along with the other tenants, the fact that the building was recently sold and that it will no doubt begin to lose its personality. But mainly we get a rambling, shapeless mess of stories and thoughts, pauses and jokes. Sure, somebody else could have made a PBS-ready film with lots of talking heads and clips and perhaps some authoritative narration, but as far as the Chelsea goes, Ferrara’s lovable clutter feels more at home.
The bottom line: ****
Chelsea on the Rocks plays June 15 at 4 p.m. and June 17 at 1 p.m.