New York City’s storied Chelsea Hotel has been called a bohemian utopia, but for longtime resident Rose Cory, it’s like a grand old tree with deep roots and life, even after being chopped down.
“There are people here who really are the remnants of another time in New York,” Corey says, “when the art world was really lively and vibrant and juicy, and art was being made here in Manhattan. Now I think that time is gone.”
Cory, a performer who has lived at the hotel since 1978, provides some of the most resonant thoughts about the iconic building’s crossroads in the documentary Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel. Partly an elegy to the hotel’s edgy heyday and a tribute to those still living there, Dreaming Walls gives viewers a glimpse inside this landmark where artists and intellectuals such as Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Robert Mapplethorpe, Arthur C. Clarke, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin lived—and more than a few died. Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious fatally stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a room on the first floor, for instance, and rocker Dee Dee Ramone overdosed there.
The Chelsea has been fertile ground for filmmakers, such as Warhol and Paul Morrisey (1966’s Chelsea Girls), Ethan Hawke (2001’s Chelsea Walls), and Abel Ferrara (2008’s Chelsea on the Rocks, which also celebrated the building’s artistic spirit and questioned its future as a boutique hotel).
Yet Dreaming Walls fails to become emotionally involving. Directors and co-writers Maya Duverdier, making her feature debut, and Amélie van Elmbt (Drôle de père) have obvious affection for the 40 or so tenants, with an original score by Kèpa and Michael Andrews including songs named for them. They shoot in cramped and colorful apartments, juxtaposing their current lives with the hotel’s renovations and archive footage of the Chelsea in its prime.
However, by not fully introducing these tenants or delving into the acrimony around the renovations, Dreaming Walls feel more languid when it should be dramatic. It relies on voices like Cory’s to fill in the narrative gaps.
Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Lori Cheatle, Dreaming Walls starts with a spark of allure as musician and poet Patti Smith in archive footage recalls how this was the first place she visited in New York because writer Dylan Thomas used to hang out there. “I have always liked to be where the big guys were,” Smith muses, wondering about Thomas taking in the same rooftop view.
Built in 1884, the Chelsea became a magnet for creative types who liked “cheap rooms, fun people, [and] flexible management,” former manager Stanley Bard in another clip. The filmmakers project footage of Hendrix, Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali and other “immortals of the twentieth century” on the hotel’s brick chimney and stairwell, as if they still haunt the place.
The montages and name checks are entertaining, but viewers must hit the internet to learn more about why the renovations took at least nine years—and one tenant accused others of holding up the works. Likewise, some viewers might wish the film had provided more context about some tenants, such as conceptual artist Bettina Grossman, whom ARTnews memorialized upon her death in 2021. Here, she speaks in a cluttered apartment about being the oldest tenant in the Chelsea, walking all over the city with her camera and tripod, and not being offered any money to leave.
Part of the problem with Dreaming Walls might be timing. The restored building reopened in May 2022, after the film wrapped. Dreaming Walls shows the upheaval and plenty of plastic sheeting, with one tenant mentioning how his one-bedroom became a studio, but not the mosaic marble tile floor, the pristine décor featured in Forbes, or the revamped El Quijote bar and restaurant—images that would cement the irony that these tenants couldn’t afford their lush address without rent stabilization.
Nevertheless, Dreaming Walls has a few dreamy moments, such as former dancer Merle Lister Levine choreographing an interpretive dance on the stairs. Elsewhere, she rests on her walker and chats up a construction worker, who holds her hands and dances gently with her in front of a window backlit by sunshine. “Beautiful lady,” he says, a compliment to her and the hotel itself.