In most major cities, history is the first thing to be obliterated. Whether you live in New York, Los Angeles, or any other metropolis, not a day goes by when an architectural wonder isn’t being razed or otherwise altered, a legacy forever changed in the name of “progress.” Such is the case with the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York City, a haven for poets, musicians, and other raconteurs of the ’60s and ’70s, including Patti Smith, Marilyn Monroe, and Dylan Thomas. What was once a location of creative inspiration is now a literal shell, slowly transforming into a chic hotel, with its long-term residents punted off into quiet corners where they can’t disturb anyone.
“Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” is less about where the hotel has been and more about where it’s headed. Directors Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt head into the Chelsea with an eye toward capturing the ghosts of the hotel’s past, but there are still plenty of living relics moving past them. Wordless passages allow the camera to take in the bare walls, broken ladders, and the other remnants of a location that is being slowly picked away at. The pair don’t seek to tell a straightforward story of the Chelsea, but the vague echoes that still linger.
Though images of the Chelsea’s famous residents are projected onto the walls throughout the movie, the first person the audience actually meets is Merle Lister, a once-famous choreographer who now spends her days navigating ladders and workmen in the Chelsea. She tries to bond with the men working on the hotel, at one point talking to a construction worker about the ghosts he feels he’s encountered at the hotel. In a way, Merle and the Chelsea residents are those same ghosts, often ignored by the men working in the hotel.
“Dreaming Walls” feels incredibly timely now, as rents are rising across the country. A war is seen raging between some tenants, many who don’t want the construction to end because they fear it will force a major rent increase. One resident mentions that their apartments have been cut down from several rooms to one-bedrooms or studios against their will. One resident enters the remnants of his former bedroom, a place where Janis Joplin once lived. Watching the documentary is like seeing John Oliver’s recent rent segment from “Last Week Tonight” played out in real time, though it’s never clear how much of the construction is actually aimed at getting the tenants out.
If you’re seeking an in-depth look at the Chelsea Hotel’s famous past or something akin to Matthew Miele’s 2018 doc “Always at the Carlyle,” you’re out of luck, though “Dreaming Walls” does occasionally turn to the hotel’s rich past. Archival footage of the likes of Patti Smith and various painters and poets are shown. It’s less an exploration of the famous and infamous and more focused on how the location became a place for creatives to make art. (Also of note: Outside of the construction worker’s ghost comment, there’s no talk of the numerous deaths that have taken place at the hotel.)
One of the more interesting elements of the documentary, one that isonly hinted at throughout, is how the Chelsea was seemingly always in a state of disrepair well before the start of the renovation it’s currently undergoing. Footage of former Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard is spliced in throughout, as he tries to present the beauty of the hotel in spite of broken elevators and other malfunctioning equipment. Various residents talk about how Bard’s allowance of drug users in the hotel caused it to fall into the current state it’s in, though the documentary presents this more as talk or gossip than seeking out the truth of it.
This is probably because “Dreaming Walls” is mostly interested in memory, and how a place can alter and shape how we perceive our lives. To hear Lister and the other Chelsea residents discuss their time there — in some cases even seeing the end of their lives there — it’s shaped everything about who they are. One resident, Rose Cory, talks candidly about how the Chelsea was a place for love, divorce, drugs, and creativity. It’s a powerful location.
That said, at just a scant 80 minutes, one wishes the documentary decided to push a bit more in either direction, either going back to the past and showing why things have changed, or showing more of the future and what the Chelsea Hotel could be when it’s finally renovated. The film presents a contemplative elegy for a hotel whose history is (still) being eroded, but by focusing on the literal walls (and how they, of course, can’t actually talk) only further removes the voices of the very people who live (and dream) inside of them.
Magnolia Pictures will release “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” in theaters on Friday, July 8.