The latest film from Abel Ferrara, New York’s notorious poet of the street, CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS is a fascinating, freewheeling personal journey inside the walls, history and mythology of Manhattan’s celebrated bohemian landmark, The Chelsea Hotel. Famed home to such icons as Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Tennessee Williams, Charles Bukowski, Andy Warhol and Mark Twain, and perennial shelter to artists great and small, new management has recently begun evicting boho tenants in favor of a more upscale crowd, prompting long-time resident Ferrara (GO GO TALES, KING OF NEW YORK, BAD LIEUTENANT) to capture the ragged splendor of the place before its unique spirit is lost forever.
Trolling the low-lit halls, visiting the hotel’s cast of memorable characters and raconteurs, and hanging out in the gallery-like lobby strewn with tenants’ paintings, CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS is shot through with an infectious brio, gallows humor and a hard-knock warmth to match its uniquely beloved subject. Ferrara’s first documentary feature, it includes interviews with residents past and present such as Milos Forman, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper and R. Crumb, vintage music and archival footage, and dramatic re-enactments summoning ghosts of the Chelsea’s storied past – Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin – performed by Bijou Phillips, Adam Goldberg, Giancarlo Esposito, and Grace Jones.
Built in 1883 and steadfast within an ever-changing city landscape, The Chelsea Hotel remained a respite and inspiration to artists, writers and performers, as well as a remarkably supportive base for assorted junkies, prostitutes, aspirants and hermits. As yet another of New York’s cultural landmark’s threatens to effectively vanish for the sake of a bland corporate status quo, CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS passionately shows how it’s often the misfit structures – and citizens – that possess a city’s soul.
I’ve stayed at the best hotels across the world, but they really pale in comparison to the Chelsea Hotel. My friend and young producer Jen Gatien, daughter of the infamous New York nightclub impresario Peter Gatien, was set on doing a documentary on the hotel. I jumped at the chance to direct.
Jen was living in the Chelsea Hotel at the time. Part of the impetus was when she, a resident on the 7th floor, awoke one day to discover that Stanley Bard,the creator and manager of the star hotel, had been given sudden notice that he was being forced out of his position of 45 years and that his son would be blocked in continuing this reign.
Rumors (which swirl around the hotel like a tornado) were mounting and the word was that the hotel was about to be given a Chateau Marmont makeover. The rumors were as creative as everything else that has come out of the place. I was confronted with the possibility of it becoming a cookie cutter Four Seasons with a Starbucks in the lobby.
We took conventional feature film documentary a step further by adding fictional vignettes inspired by documentary interviews and research. I took these stories and reunited with the infamous psychiatrist/screenwriter Chris Zois (NEW ROSE HOTEL and BLACKOUT). This is a place of greatliterary tradition – Vladimir Nabokov, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller – therefore I was faced with the daunting task of living up to the legacy.
Hopefully the fact that we are living in the same building, or as one of the residents says, living in the same vortex – which again is the one of the aforementioned rumors – would incite the project as the hotel had incited the great works that have been produced here for generations, from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan.
Using a filmic structure that intertwines archival footage and interviews, adding vignettes, using not only the actors from my usual group but also actors who are very much part of the soul of the hotel (Ethan Hawke, Adam Goldberg, Dennis Hopper). Using fictional storytelling to get the truth.