Chelsea on the Rocks (2008)

Genres - History  |   Sub-Genres - Social History  |   Release Date - Oct 2, 2009 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 88 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Bruce Eder

If there are any doubts about Abel Ferrara's edge, or whether he still has it, they should be dispelled by Chelsea on the Rocks. Admittedly, a documentary is a long way from a fiction film in terms of content or focus, but his 88-minute account of the history, distant and recent, of the renowned Chelsea Hotel in New York recaptures a lot of the excitement and pacing of the place, from its heyday in the mid-20th century to the more sedate early 21st century. The Chelsea, for those unfamiliar, was the residence of such varied figures as Samuel Clemens, Dylan Thomas, Vladimir Nabokov, Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, Milos Forman (who shows up with some excruciatingly funny reminiscences), and Sid Vicious. Along the way, there have been novels and films born there, lives ended there, and a lot of careers fostered by the environment of the place.

Watching the film, one gets the sense of crashing a party very quietly; there's enough actual visual material -- and contemporary accounts and footage -- that the effect is exciting in and of itself (or, perhaps, it's just a reflection of how relatively tame New York has become in the decades since the late-'70s/early-'80s focus of a lot of the narrative). Viewers who lived through the decades covered will likely be reminded of numerous pieces of music, plays, and works of art from those time periods. In that regard, Ferrara has found a subject that evokes a good deal of resonance beyond its own boundaries, of what the creative life in New York (and elsewhere) was like on the cusp of the rise of Reagan, the advent of the culture wars, etc.

Ferrara's movie captures some of the essence of the Chelsea from the tail end of its glory days, in the 1980s and into the 1990s, when a management coup forced out the operators and began the process of turning it into an up-market dwelling place. Between the director's knack for placing the camera in the right spot and getting the best moments of the reminiscences, plus some very tight editing by Langdon Page, the result is a movie that will recall a lot more than just the Chelsea. Anyone who was under the age of 60 in the 1980s should see this movie, just to recall what the cutting edge of creativity looked like, in its best and worst incarnations, in that era and the time leading up to it. The reenactments of the Sid Vicious/Nancy Spungen material work amazingly well, as do the Janis Joplin re-creations, and they don't detract from the actual footage of anyone represented. The participants in the re-enactments include Adam Goldberg and Grace Jones. The film also brings a surprising degree of overarching order to some of the more chaotic moments and incidents described, and personalities delineated. In the end, it's one of the most exciting and bracing documentaries about a building ever made, and a superb account of the New York art and underground scene from the post-'50s to today. There's not a moment that isn't spellbinding and exciting, even if some of it -- especially the Sid Vicious material -- is repellant as well.