The title is “Dreaming Walls,” so don’t dive into this documentary about New York’s famous — and infamous — Hotel Chelsea expecting a literal history lesson.
Twelve stories of brick that opened on 23rd St. in 1884, it hosted Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, and was home to everyone from Janis and Hendrix to Marilyn and Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Arthur C. Clarke — who wrote the screen treatment for “2001” there — and Bob Dylan.
The original “Dylan,” the poet Dylan Thomas, took his boozy, fatal turn for the worse in a Chelsea room, which was a real selling point to poet-rocker Patti Smith, seen in footage dating from the ’70s.
It was “the first place I came to in New York,” a very young Smith enthused, walking around rooftop terrace. “I’m SURE he throw up one too many rums off this roof!”
The Rolling Stones sardonically referenced its “Chelsea Drugstore” drug-addled reputation in the 1969 classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
But the address’s star-studded, woozy history is mostly glimpsed via projections on its hallowed walls by Belgian filmmakers Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt. They made a movie about an institution and landmark cluttered, outdated and in transition.
A string of changes in ownership, a clientele that included many ancient, grandfathered-in apartment tenants (a few of them hoarders) and an endless renovation that ate up the 2010s — it only reopened this past Feb. — makes their film more paleontological than historical. We’re taking a peek at the bones, mid-dig, hearing stories archived on film and remembered by the aging denizens of this dark, stained-glass monument, lamenting what it is becoming, regretting what’s been lost.
The more historical longtime tenants recognize it and themselves as “remnants of another time in New York,” when Warhol shot “Chelsea Girls” on one floor, when “Bohemians” of several generations were drawn to it, right up to and including that aspiring Michigan dancer Madonna Louise Ciccone, who returned to shoot photos for her book “Sex” after she became the world’s most famous bottle blonde.
There’s a little archival footage — an interview with composer Virgil Thomson, a longtime resident who died there in 1989. But mostly, we’re seeing an arduous renovation through the camera’s lens, hearing the reveries and gripes of a lot of seriously elderly residents — dancers and drag queens, retired painters and others who got into this cheap, centrally-located piece of Manhattan real estate through the machinations and indulgence of the longtime manager Stanley Bard, son of one of its many longtime owners over the decades.
If there’s a failure to this approach with their film it’s in the reliance on the viewer to know much of that history tied to the place going in. We’re invited to dream along with the filmmakers, without a lot of background, footnotes or interviews with experts or the celebrated folks who once lived there.
They gave us an 80 minute movie. Another 10 minutes, summarizing its notoriety, getting snippets of Mick and Elliott Gould or Patti S. or Bette or Jane Fonda or Russell Brand, Robbie Robertson or Eddie Izzard doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.
“Dreaming Walls” still manages to play as a visual poem to the place at the tail end of its long decay, before its latest pricey sprucing up and upscale reinvention.
Cast: Rose Cory, Merle Lester Levine, Stanley Bard, Gina Healey, Pablo Martinez, Zoe Serac Pappas, Nicholas Pappas, Virgil Thomson, Steve Willis and Bettina Grossman
Credits: Scripted and directed by Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:20