Once upon a time in 1960s New York City, there lived the legendary Chelsea Hotel. Located at 222 West 23rd Street, between 7th & 8th Avenues, it became a beacon for Bohemian artists and intellectuals immersed in what was then a counterculture movement and included writers, musicians, artists, poets, and actors. Documentary filmmakers Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier decided this historic landmark would be a fascinating subject for a documentary and, indeed, it is. This amazing film had its World Premiere at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival and its North American Premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Lori Cheatle, DREAMING WALLS: INSIDE THE CHELSEA HOTEL, is a haunting film which begins with a montage of famous people who passed through the hotel including, Patti Smith, Al Pacino, Marilyn Monroe, Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, Milos Forman, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, and superstars of Warhol’s Factory. While in residence, Artur C. Clark penned “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Alan Ginsberg wrote poems. As the documentary begins, slowly, ever so slowly, cinematographers Joachim Philippe and Virginie Surdej’s penetrating cameras, closes in on the sign “Hotel Chelsea” leading us inside, revealing both the former beauty of this historic landmark as well as the chaos attendant to its remodeling. The montage continues and we are now inside a stuck elevator where two residents await instructions on how to get it moving again which is accomplished by one of the workers pressing an exterior button and the elevator is once more operational. We meet an old woman on a walker who is holding her rent check and a gentleman on a cane. It becomes immediately apparent that this building is undergoing a major facelift as we hear the constant din of construction sounds, – electric saws and hammering – along with exterior scaffolding, and narrow hallways with electrical wires eerily hanging down from pealing ceilings. This upheaval has been ongoing for close to a decade with the possibility of one more year to go. Gradually, we begin to meet some the long-time resident artists, all of whom were encouraged to move out, but decided to stay despite pressure from management and the ongoing disruption of their lives. It’s Christmas and a married couple are decorating their holiday tree with the wife commenting that the construction is a personal attack on the tenants who would like to prevent the new owners from completing the makeover, which would turn their sanctuary into a super exclusive, very expense hotel catering to the ultrarich community. A sweet conversation between elderly Merle Lister, who practices Tai Chi, and one of the construction workers. She asks him if he likes his job and he reveals that after doing research on the history of the building, which was erected between 1883 and 1885, he senses ghosts living amongst the nooks and crannies and are trying to find their way out. It turns out this delightful woman is a former modern dancer who was dance master of the Lister Dance Company and in a delicious moment of spontaneity, as he hums a melody, they do a slow version of the mambo. She is one of a handful of holdouts who refuses to move out and endures the challenges they all face as the radical remodel continues. At one point, in preparation for a party, she choreographs a dancer descending, almost floating, down the storied staircase, transitioning from something ethereal to a kinetic, almost stumbling downward movement. Adding to the festivities, is a group of singers who perform in four-part harmony. In the meantime, the manager has informed the residents that when the renovation is completed, they will have to use the service elevator so as not to bring attention to their lack of financial means which might upset their future ultra-rich clientele who will be staying at the super luxurious hotel. Susan, a painter who has been living in the hotel for a very long time, continues to express her art despite the upheaval all around her and sometimes engages in philosophical discussions such as, “Is it art if no one sees it? Another artist believes that the creation of art comes from a desire to share – not connected to money. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas stayed in Room 205 and someone quotes his: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which one might assume could act as a battle cry for this determined group to not be forced out by an ambitious new owner.
Skilled directors Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, along with the amazing, penetrating work by the cinematographers, whose beautifully framed shots illuminate the daily lives and struggles of the remaining residents who act as a reminder of the glorious days when the hotel was a haven for artists. Meticulously edited by co-editors Alain Dessauvage and Julie Naas, collectively the entire production team has created a love letter to the Chelsea Hotel, and introduces us to an assortment of the most fascinating artists who, despite the challenge of living under major upheaval, decide to live out the rest of their lives with dignity, cloaked in the memories of the magical days gone by.
Directors: Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Executive Producers: Martin Scorsese & Lori Cheatle Magnolia Pictures
Cinematographers: Joachim Philippe, & Virginie Surdej
Editors: Alain Dessauvage & Julie Naas
Composer: Michael Andrews
Running Time: 80 Minutes
In General Release & On Demand