As non-traditional documentaries go, Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier’s “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” (Magnolia Pictures) is right up there with Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground.”
What that means is that the visual effects are as much a part of the telling as the story itself.
Following the opening vintage clip of renowned Chelsea Hotel habitue Patti Smith extolling the virtues of Dylan Thomas, “Dreaming Walls” shifts to video images of some of the luminaries including Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen (who wrote the song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”), Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, and Edie Sedgwick, who graced the apartment hotel’s rooms.
At the time of the making of the doc, scaffolding and other construction apparatus obstructed views of Chelsea. Many floors have been gutted for an ongoing renovation, just as several longtime residents have remained in their units. Some of the people even established friend rapports with the construction crew.
Among the residents, also known as the “hold-outs,” whose stories are highlighted are former dancer/choreographer Merle Lister Levine, trans performer and artist Rose Corey, visual artist Susan K (aka Kleinsinger), composer Gerald Busby, wire sculptor Skye Ferrante, structural engineer Zoe Pappas and her architect husband Nicholas, and Steve Willis, a gay man whose professional connection to Mariah Carey earned him a fabulous one-bedroom apartment (now reduced to a studio where he lives with his two dogs), among others. Each dweller regales the viewer with stories about their time at the Chelsea and how it may be drawing to a close due to the new owner's plans for the landmark building.
Co-writers/co-directors van Elmbt and Duverdier have crafted an impressionistic experience. Interweaving extraordinary vintage film footage with contemporary scenes gives “Dreaming Walls” a haunted and haunting feeling. One of the most special sequences occurs during a classic scene in which Stanley Bard, the former longtime manager of the Chelsea, is talking to painter Larry Rivers. Bard is finally able to get Rivers to sign a piece of his art hanging in the Chelsea lobby. They also talk jovially about Chelsea’s appeal, which Bard sums up as “cheap rooms, fun
people, flexible management.” Other essential interviews with past residents include the ones with gay composer Virgil Thomson and artist Alphaeus Cole
As one of the last remnants of “bohemian and avant-garde New York,” Chelsea has earned the right to be celebrated and “Dreaming Walls” qualifies as such an experience.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.