Review: ‘Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel,’ starring Merle Lister, Bettina Grossman, Zoe Pappas, Nicholas Pappas and Steve Willis

September 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Merle Lister and a construction worker in “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel”

Directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier

Culture Representation: Taking place at New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, the documentary film “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” features a group of nearly all-white people (and one African American) discussing the past and present of the Chelsea Hotel.

Culture Clash: Current residents of the Chelsea Hotel, which is known for being the home of artists and eccentrics, express frustration about the hotel’s massive reconstruction/renovations that they think are taking too long and disrupting their lives.

Culture Audience: “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in the legacy of this famous hotel, but they won’t find anything substantial about the hotel’s history, and almost all of the people in documentary are actually very boring.

Bettina Grossman in “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Don’t expect to get the fascinating history of New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel in the documentary “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel.” The movie is a rambling, disjointed look at some of the hotel’s current residents, who are mostly dull. Expect to hear more complaining in this documentary about Manhattan real estate than any interesting stories about past and present residents of the Chelsea Hotel.

Directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” takes a scattershot approach to documenting the happenings at the Chelsea Hotel, whose official name is actually Hotel Chelsea. The Victorian Gothic/Queen Anne Revival-styled building—located at 222 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood—was constructed from 1883 to 1885, and originally opened as a co-op apartment building but closed after just a few years, due to financial issues. The building re-opened as a hotel in 1905, and was officially declared a New York City landmark in 1966. None of this background information is in the documentary.

Most of the movie consists of cinéma vérité footage, but some other parts are a nod to the Chelsea Hotel’s past, with archival footage of some of the hotel’s famous former residents, including rock singer/songwriter Patti Smith, at the hotel and/or talking about the hotel. The Chelsea Hotel’s notoriety peaked in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the hotel became known for attracting creative artists, bohemians and other eccentrics. Some of the celebrities who called the Chelsea Hotel home at one time or another included Smith, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, writer/poet Allen Ginsberg, writer/poet Dylan Thomas, writer Mark Twain, novelist Arthur C. Clarke and notorious rock’n’roll couple Sid Vicious (former bass player of the Sex Pistols) and Nancy Spungen.

The hotel was also the site of Spungen’s murder by stabbing in October 1978. Vicious was arrested for her murder, but he died of a heroin overdose in February 1979, before the case was resolved. Clarke wrote his classic 1968 sci-fi novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the hotel. Filmmaker/artist Andy Warhol’s 1966 movie “Chelsea Girls” was about the Chelsea Hotel’s artistic community at the time and was filmed at the Chelsea Hotel.

Leonard Cohen’s 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2” was inspired by a sexual fling that he had at the hotel with singer Janis Joplin, who died in 1971, and who spent a lot of time at the Chelsea Hotel when she was staying in New York City. Jefferson Airplane’s 1971 song “Third Week at the Chelsea” is about the Chelsea Hotel. None of that history is in this documentary, but some viewers might be fooled into thinking that “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” will be a chronicle of the hotel’s most famous stories.

Instead, the movie focuses on some of the current residents, who spend a lot of time complaining about how the ongoing construction in the hotel is inconvenient, noisy and not worth the rent that they pay. The interviewees live in cramped spaces, which are often shabby and overcrowded with their possessions. Most of the interviewees are over the age of 60. They include Merle Lister, Bettina Grossman, Zoe Pappas, Nicholas Pappas and Steve Willis.

Lister is a social butterfly who has the liveliest personality out of them all. In one of the documentary’s few memorable scenes, she somewhat flirts with a construction worker, as they talk about how they both think the hotel is haunted with ghosts. Later in the movie, Lister is seen having a friendly dinner at the one-bedroom apartment occupied by Zoe Pappas and her husband Nicholas Pappas.

Architect/engineer Zoe Pappas, who is the president of the Chelsea Tenants Association, talks a lot about the residents’ frustrations with the Chelsea Hotel renovations. Grossman, a cranky hoarder, is described in the documentary as being the hotel’s oldest current resident, but her age is never stated in the movie. Willis, a Chelsea Hotel resident since 1994, gripes about how his living space has shrunk because of the building renovations. He says of all this reconstruction at the Chelsea Hotel: “For a long time, I felt like I was witnessing a slow-motion rape of this building.”

Far from being the vibrant artistic hub that it was in its heyday, the Chelsea Hotel looks more like resident hotel for retired senior citizens. Much like the hotel, many of the residents have seen better days and are holding on to past glories that will never come back. “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” can’t even get any great stories out of these residents. In the end, this so-called documentary just looks like a self-indulgent student film that’s trying too hard to be avant-garde artsy.

Magnolia Pictures released “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 8, 2022.

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