Abel Ferrara, Chelsea on the Rocks, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes. William Burroughs and Andy Warhol.

LONG A STUBBORN TOTEM of downbeat bohemia in the face of Manhattan’s gentrification, the Chelsea Hotel was wrenched into the corporate present in 2007, when members of the hotel’s board forced out the seemingly eternal manager/owner Stanley Bard in favor of BD Hotels, a boutique hotel firm that threatened to turn it into the Chambers, the Mercer, or something worse. (The board has since fired BD, with various scuffles and changeovers in management tracked on the Hotel Chelsea Blog.) Producer Jen Gatien was living in the Chelsea at the time of the initial ouster and was determined to document the last days of the old ways, when writers, artists, and musicians both famous and obscure could find refuge from rent and reality in the seedy grandeur of the 1883 landmark building. After beginning the project herself, she quickly turned to her father’s old friend and quintessential New York filmmaker Abel Ferrara (King of New York [1990], Bad Lieutenant [1992], The Addiction [1995]) to direct the doc. A native son currently living in Rome, Ferrara, who resembles the love child of Dennis Hopper and Andre the Giant and subsists largely on beer, returned to live at the hotel and began shooting.

It’s an odd, if charming, little film, blending vintage footage of the hotel and its past residents with casual, rambling talking-head interviews with present-day tenants, the deposed Bard, and some of its more famous veterans—Milos Forman, R. Crumb, Vito Acconci, and Ethan Hawke. Unfortunately, it also includes reenactments of the death spirals of Janis Joplin and Sid and Nancy played by Bijou Phillips, Jamie Burke, Grace Jones, and Adam Goldberg, among others. Now, any viewer of true-crime shows or the History Channel knows that reenactments are the dodgiest of dramatic forms. Ferrara has been a great director of actors and scenes, but these sub-A&E sequences do nothing for the film, the dead celebrities, or the hotel’s legacy. With the exception of a scene featuring Hawke singing and playing one of his “songs” on an out-of-tune piano, the reenactments are the film’s main missteps.

The Chelsea’s story is so storied that Ferrara ignores timeline-style cultural archaeology, preferring to hang out with his subjects in their rooms or the lobby and let the chips fall where they may. Nobody, but nobody, is named, leaving the viewer no idea whom he’s talking to at any time. Watching the film, you might never learn that Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the Chelsea, that Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams stayed there, that Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote the script for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey while living inside its walls, or that it was the tallest building in New York until 1902. You will learn that a smoking kitchen pan led the fire department to drown the slumbering cook with their hoses; that a current resident suffered a brain aneurysm, lay on his floor for three days without help, and survived to tell the tale; that ghosts walk the halls at night; and that Bard never actually accepted artists’ paintings in lieu of rent (even though the lobby’s walls are covered with them). You will also see the world’s smallest Schnabel (a painting by Julian, not daughter Lola, who is in the film). It is pretty small.

Still, Ferrara captures the kooky melancholia of the hotel’s past and present, largely through tone and an empathetic, simpatico ear. At its core, the film is really more about the death of old New York than about the Chelsea itself. The city is cleaner, safer, and healthier, but it’s hard to say that something hasn’t been lost in the process. The Chelsea is a glorious, moldering monument to the artistic ferment of twentieth-century New York. Pay it a visit before it goes the way of Times Square.

Andrew Hultkrans

Chelsea on the Rocks has its theatrical premiere on October 2 at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas in New York. For more details, click here.