There’s no better director to chronicle the history of New York’s Chelsea Hotel than Abel Ferrara, whose best films draw energy from the city’s bohemian decay. Home, briefly or otherwise, to an impossibly long list of artistic luminaries, the hotel has been memorialized by Leonard Cohen and Andy Warhol as a vibrant den of sin, a place where geniuses rub elbows with (and sometimes are) transsexuals and heroin addicts. Ferrara himself is no stranger to substance abuse or self-destructive impulses, and he’s perfectly in sync with the Chelsea’s spirit.
Ferrara’s Chelsea On The Rocks attempts to capture the hotel at a transition point, on the cusp of being transformed into one more ritzy Manhattan residency. Interviews with the likes of Milos Forman and Vito Acconci attest to the hotel’s gloriously decadent past, and archive footage captures Janis Joplin and Rick Danko launching into an impromptu version of “No More Cane On The Brazos.” Ferrara doesn’t identify his subjects, perhaps out of a conviction that the Chelsea’s grotty confines treat all comers equally, but the effect is to at least partly shut out anyone who can’t identify, say, painter Donald Baechler on sight. And therein lies the movie’s core weakness. Ferrara isn’t making a case for the Chelsea’s importance so much as he’s wallowing in its atmosphere. It’s a work of nostalgia rather than investigation.
Ferrara’s greatest misstep is the decision to reenact some of the most notorious episodes in the hotel’s history, including the stabbing death of Sid Vicious’ girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, played with scuzzy verve by Bijou Phillips. Overlaid with voiceover by Vicious’ drug dealer (and Jim Jarmusch supporting player) Rockets Redglare, the bloody vignette mainly focuses on Spungen’s violent argument with a pair of dealers played by Adam Goldberg and Giancarlo Esposito, rejoining the scene only after Spungen has been fatally wounded. Far worse are the few scenes featuring Ferrara’s girlfriend Shanyn Leigh as Janis Joplin, whose ill-fitting costumes make her look like a teenager who just raided her mother’s dresser.
The movie’s most enjoyable moments are the brief instances when Ferrara himself intrudes on the scene. When one subject digresses on the pressures of fame, Ferrara breaks in: “How could you not handle fame? Try handling not-fame.” Ferrara may be not-famous, but even in his so-so films, he’s one of the most distinctive directors on the planet. Chelsea On The Rocks is one documentary that could have used a little less objectivity.