Synopsis: The end of a long upmarket renovation of the legendary Chelsea Hotel is partly longed for and partly dreaded by the artists who still live there. The film grants us access to their apartments and interweaves the past with the present.
Director: Maya Duverdier, Amélie van Elmbt
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Fans of the 1960s counterculture movement in New York City that gave birth to iconic artists like Janis Joplin, Jackson Pollack, Diego Rivera, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ching ho Chang, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, and countless others would likely be able to spot the landmark location on which this documentary centers. The famed Chelsea Hotel served as home/playpen/stomping ground for these legendary contributors to art and commerce, with the dwelling serving as inspiration for quite a lot of their work over the ensuing years. Plenty of books, songs, movies, and paintings have been created documenting its influence, but time cannot stop progress, and the cost of living in NYC is at a premium…and so is the value of history.
Directors Maya Duverdier & Amélie van Elmbt have created their documentary Dreaming Walls as a tribute not only to those that made the Chelsea famous but to those that have endured over time within the space. As the hotel continues years of renovations, turning it into more of a luxe location for out-of-town tourists or new money movers and shakers, what happens to the tenants that have inhabited it for decades? Similar to construction magnates across the country buying up plots of land or offering considerable sums to homeowners to give up their houses so they can be demolished in favor of buildings shinier and new, the owners of the Chelsea hope to throw enough money at those living in rent-controlled units to vacate. Or perhaps the goal is to make the living conditions so inconvenient they will move of their own volition.
Never underestimate the tenacity or fortitude of a starving artist, no matter how old they are. As the filmmaker’s behind Dreaming Walls show, the ones that have stayed are the true lifeblood of the Chelsea and living history of the tenets that made it into such a storied spot. Using clips from previous documentaries and personal materials from the subjects, we get an idea of what the past was like compared to the reality of the present situation. It’s a fascinating look inside lives from an all-but-forgotten time (to us) that remains vivid to those who haven’t moved on/out. It’s little wonder the film attracted the attention of executive producer (and dyed-in-the-wool New York-er) Martin Scorcese, The Irishman.
Running a scant 80 minutes, it doesn’t feel like we ever touch down with anyone in the Chelsea for very long. Maybe that’s a good thing because their privacy has already been invaded by construction crews who work later than they should and have taken years longer to complete the renovations than initially promised. Duverdier & van Elmbt mix up their interview styles, with some subjects speaking directly to the camera while others make their remarks in voice-over. It combines to form a striking portrait of a groundbreaking residence on the precipice of vanishing. In that way, having Dreaming Walls as a minor key to unlock the past of the Chelsea Hotel is extremely valuable.