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By Mark Bell | June 21, 2008

“Chelsea on the Rocks” should’ve been entitled “Abel Ferrara Interrupts” instead. A documentary about the famed Manhattan Chelsea Hotel, filmed during and around a change in ownership (and tenant policy), “Chelsea on the Rocks” is hinderd by a very talkative, off-camera interviewer Ferrara and lengthy, annoying re-enactments / imaginings of events from the Chelsea Hotel’s past.

For those that don’t know, the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is infamous for its many artistic tenants, and the various tragedies that have occurred there, such as the murder of Nancy Spungeon. Early owner Stanley Bard was notorious for allowing his tenants to float rent for long periods of time, and the result was a kind of artistic vortex. Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Ethan Hawke, Sid Vicious (and the aforementioned Nancy) and Milos Forman all lived there, as did numerous others that you have and have not heard of. Current resident, director Abel Ferrara, decided he wanted to document the history and vibe of the hotel at a time when the Chelsea’s new ownership was changing policies, rent and subsequently turning the site into something much more of a tourist destination than, say, the living, historical lifeform it actually is (a lifeform, by the by, that could be considered one that required the occasional suicide or murder sacrifice to be appeased).

Where the documentary first stumbles all over itself is the decision of Ferrara to conduct the various interviews himself. More talkative than many of his subjects, Ferrara’s gravely voice can often be heard interrupting many a story with either exclamations, or in some cases, outright contradictions. While I’m sure this lead to a very comfortable, conversational vibe for the participants, it gives a very annoying, chaotic vibe to the audience.

One of the other issues I have with the film includes a lack of titles for many of the people being interviewed (while some are very recognizable, others aren’t and… I would’ve liked to know who I was looking at and listening to). Perhaps this had to do with the print I saw, and may be corrected in future projections, but as it stood, I found myself listening to people tell rambling stories that may’ve found more context had I known who they were.

My final criticism is leveled at the various re-enactments in the film, particularly the section on Sid and Nancy, and the circumstances surrounding Nancy’s death. To Ferrara’s credit, he does re-enact the theory that Nancy was murdered by someone other than Sid, while he was instead doped out unconscious in the room (most other re-tellings have aimed on the tragedy of having Sid kill her himself, though due to both of their deaths, no one really knows but them or the possible murderer). The problem with this, however, is that the tale of Sid and Nancy has been told by better actors in Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy,” and seeing a half-assed, poorly acted re-creation in this doc just makes you pine for the other film. Other re-enactments involving Janis Joplin and the party-vibe of the old days of the hotel give a very sad, sleazy feel to the hotel that may or may not be applicable but, regardless, aren’t very good either.

Listen, I don’t need a straightforward, here’s where the bodies are buried account, and I liked many of the stories I heard and particularly enjoyed whenever Stanley Bard was on screen interacting with his many tenants, past and present (the impromptu conversation and reunion with director Milos Forman being one of the highlights). Still, I couldn’t stand the constant interruptions by Ferrara and, again, the re-enactments didn’t set the mood so much as pull me out of the one I was in naturally, just by listening to people talk about the Chelsea.

I wish I liked this film more, I think there’s merit to the more experimental method of documentary filmmaking, but this is confused jumble at best. Maybe someday someone will make the definitive Chelsea Hotel documentary, but then again, maybe this is it. Regardless, “Chelsea on the Rocks” is a historical portrait from an insider, and has added value for that very reason, and whereas I can’t suggest this film to casual audiences, those with an affinity for the Chelsea may want to see this anyway.

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