New York’s Chelsea Hotel (strictly, the Hotel Chelsea) is the almost mythic building renowned for the radical bohemianism and life-on-the-edge danger of its famous residents, who have included Dylan Thomas, Patti Smith, Sid Vicious, Bob Dylan, Madonna and Iggy Pop. But unlike CBGBs or checker cabs, the Chelsea is a New York institution that does in fact still exist, and is the subject of this interesting, if meanderingly vague documentary from Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt.
It is all about the now ageing artists and radicals still living there, such as dancer and choreographer Merle Lister, who once staged performances in the Chelsea’s beautiful stairwell with its wrought-iron balustrades. They are the ageing holdout generation with legally protected tenancy – and they resent the forces of gentrification for trying to evict them and ruin the Chelsea’s artistic spirit. A property developer bought it in 2011 and has been striving for an upgrade. But this is more of an apartment building than a hotel, so the overhaul is no simple matter.
Then there is a division of opinion within the longtermers themselves. The ones who have not simply accepted a cash inducement to quit are willing to accept the new landlord’s secondary offer of smaller but better appointed apartments – but others are unashamedly obstructive, seeking to delay all the refurbishments because they know that once complete (and the restoration was in fact finished this year), big modern-Manhattan-style rent hikes will be on the way.
This is a reasonably engaging film although I found myself guilty of the cardinal sin of modern documentary-watching: pining for an old-fashioned voiceover that would explain exactly what and who everyone is and what are the dates of the archive film and video material being used – particularly that involving the former manager Stanley Bard, who reputedly created the hotel’s artist-colony image. It’s a melancholy, dreamy study.