Chelsea on the Rocks
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Abel Ferrara isn't a great director because his films are copybook models of streamlined perfection. Some are close, but the average Ferrara movie is better than most stuff out there because his brash personality and renegade interests are splashed all over them. It's only too easy to forgive the flaws, of which there are many, in his documentary (more of an "essay film," really) about the Chelsea Hotel's past, present, and uncertain future under new management that's far less artist-friendly than that of longtime manager Stanley Bard.
It's a loose, riffy hour and a half comprised of disconnected interviews, staged recreations of infamous events (including the murder of Nancy Spungen), and archival footage, puttied together with moody hallway slo-mo. Ferrara's no Mike Wallace—he interrupts interviewees with laughter and croaked non-sequiturs, and often bounds violently into the frame—but being unable to control enthusiasm for a subject is low on any list of offenses. The staged bits, with a chesty Bijou Phillips as Spungen, whose killer here is vaguely posited as one of Sid Vicious's dealers, and another with Shanyn Leigh as the Joplin-like Jan, look a little cheap, and a digression about 9/11 seems like it's in the wrong movie.
Corkers abound, though a lack of identifying names makes it hard to know who's speaking. Ethan Hawke, whose own Chelsea Walls was set at the hotel where he once lived, speaks animatedly of Bard's punctilious generosity and concern for his failing marriage. Milos Forman recounts a (most likely fake) drowning-by-firemen horror. Someone else remembers being passed out from a stroke on the floor for three days, almost dying of thirst. Rockets Redglare, Robert Crumb, and Dennis Hopper all chime in with varying degrees of passion and cynicism.
Clips of Warhol and William S. Burroughs hanging out, and the real Joplin jamming with The Grateful Dead, are priceless, on top of which Ferrara adds—why not?—himself rocking out with some dudes at a nearby guitar shop. Even if it's far from a definitive history of the 23rd Street haunt (a sober account would most likely be tedious and artist-worshiping, missing the soul of the matter), it sounds "good out of tune," as someone remarks about a piano played by Hawke.
Opens October 2