Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin, Stanley Kubrick and Jane Fonda are just a few of the celebrities who graced the halls of the historic Chelsea Hotel in New York, one of the most iconic buildings in the city, but in Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel, filmmakers Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier (with executive producer Martin Scorsese), take you inside the property’s controversial renovation.
A popular gathering spot for artists, when the Chelsea was relinquished to new owners in 2011, its (mostly elderly) residents started on the path of almost a decade of chaos to transform the property into a luxury hotel, largely stripping the building of its original form.
“There are people here who really are the remnants of another time in New York, when Manhattan was a bohemia and avant-garde centre of activity,” artist and resident Rose Cory says in the documentary. “When the art world was really lively and vibrant and juicy, and art was being made here in Manhattan, now I think that time has gone.”
“It’s kind of like a grand old tree that’s been chopped down but the roots are deep and there’s life still coming from it. So we don’t really know where it’s going yet. To all appearances, they will in time put us all out.”
Choreographer Merle Lister is roaming the halls, in a walker, getting updates from the construction workers, while others just want the renovation to finally come to an end. It's actually Lister who initially invited the filmmakers into her room during the renovation project.
Steve Willis, a resident who lived at the Chelsea from 1994, and brought Mariah Carey to the property, calls it a “rape” on the building.
While a ghostly look at the history of the Chelsea, with flashes of what happened behind those walls, and with who, Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is a bit too vague to sink your teeth into.
Unlike documentaries like Always at the Carlyle, another landmark celebrity-filled property, Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is less informative and more artistic. There is more of a focus on the present versus spending a significant amount of time looking at the past, or how the demographics of the residents shifted through the years.
Some clips of former manager Stanley Bard give you a glimpse into the property's previous life, but the documentary doesn't dive deep into specifics, like the circumstances of him being pushed out of his position in 2007. Bard died in 2017 at the age of 82.
It's certainly a documentary for the times, with tensions high around issues of rent control and housing affordability, particularly in the larger cities around the world.
Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel has enough to please anyone interested in the legendary tales of historic, iconic landmarks, not unlike the Chateau Marmont in California, but for the Chelsea, its future was far more grim, and a cautionary tale to anyone even remotely interested in preserving pieces of our past.
Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel opens July 8 in Toronto (Hot Docs Cinema) and Saskatoon (Broadway). The film opens throughout the summer in other cities.