In 2007, the longtime manager of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Stanley Bard, was forced from his position in an attempt at turning the sometime-bohemian paradise into a corporate edifice earning money from its historic status. It’s an interesting and ongoing story, one that director Abel Ferrara has been capturing on film as it’s been happening by speaking with many of the hotel’s current and past inhabitants about the building’s past and future and how much it’s affected them personally. Too bad that’s only a small portion of the ramshackle Chelsea on the Rocks, which only peripherally explores the current developments and as a result topples under the weight of its unfocused ambition.
Some of what Ferrara attempts with his documentary in both content and form almost works. Combining interviews, first-person exploration, found footage, recreation and any other technique available to him, the documentary comes together as a collage of ideas that fails to make up a unified whole. This allows Chelsea on the Rocks to drift with an almost stream-of-consciousness level of association, skipping between concepts with a level of whimsy that feels representative of the anarchic subject matter. In steadier hands, this is probably something that could be pulled off.
Unfortunately, Ferrara can’t hold all of his pieces together, creating a jumbled mess with no real structure and frequently unclear purposes. The best footage in the film, such as Janis Joplin breaking into “No More Cane on the Brazos,” is frequently surrounded by the worst, like Shanyn Leigh’s overacting while playing Joplin in a recreation. That no one in Chelsea is identified only adds to the mess, unless you’re extremely good at recognizing painters’ faces. As the film progresses, ideas jump in and out without ever being truly expanded on while aspects given great significance early on, such as Sid and Nancy’s tenure in the building, stop for no rhyme or reason.
In Chelsea’s 88 minutes there’s probably 44 minutes of pretty interesting coverage, especially when Ferrara makes his authorial presence in the film really felt by intruding into the interviews and footage. But the other 44 minutes more than balance this out and end up detracting from other portions through sheer confusion. In need of a re-edit like few other films, Chelsea on the Rocks isn’t so much bad as it is disappointing.