‘Dreaming Walls’ Review: A Glimpse Inside The Chelsea Hotel of Yore and Lore

Magnolia Pictures

The Chelsea Hotel portrayed in Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel, a new documentary directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, transcends time. Opening footage of a young, sweet Patti Smith — explaining that she was drawn to the part-apartment, part-hotel and its cheap rooms with the intention of living where the greats once lived — feels prophetic: Smith is unaware that she eventually would be one of the greats referenced by future tenants. Anyone with even passing interest in the rich, often insane, history of New York in the 1960s or the artistic revolution of the New York Underground will know how much the Chelsea Hotel meant culturally for decades. It was a space where some of the all-time artistic greats, the likes of Bob Dylan, Mark Twain, Sam Shepard stayed, where Andy Warhol directed his iconic Chelsea Girls, where the bohemian chic drank and drugged and fucked and partied and sometimes even died.   

Almost immediately after this footage of Smith, we see the Chelsea Hotel as it currently functions. It’s a cheap-ish New York apartment in the midst of some noisy, ugly construction, the owners working on creating some highly expensive hotel rooms for the wealthiest of the wealthy to stay in. Among the mess are the Chelsea Hotel’s current residents — mostly elderly patrons and tenants attached to the cheap pay, some of them having lived there since the hotel’s most artistically prestigious era but who are now, more than anything, perhaps considered a nuisance. 

Dreaming Walls works with a deliciously light touch, allowing for the quirky, charismatic and often lifelong patrons of the Chelsea Hotel to speak for themselves. We sit in with intense artists who work tirelessly and document their processes with a striking intensity, with elderly women who used to be dancers in the midst of the height of the New York Underground, but now opt for charming slow dances with the men working construction on the building, or for practicing choreography with their old friends — a dedication to the craft that touches deeply. We lay in bed with sweet couples who read each other fables, who live and die in the Chelsea’s walls, only to be remembered as ghosts by those renovating the space. We muse with the man who remembers the eccentric artists he lived next to — those who created in these walls, those who killed themselves in the stairwells. We begin to feel the risk of what may be lost in these renovations, we nod along in commiseration with the man who is desperately trying to keep his apartment and its art in its original form. 

I particularly adore the chic, somewhat spacey couple who bemoans the construction from their chandelier-bedecked apartment. They are the shining example of the apartment’s generally fantastic interiors. Some of the rooms are well-decorated, some are cluttered, but most all of them achingly, heartwarmingly cozy: close and special and warm. 

“Would New York disappear if we stopped paying rent?” a patron muses at one point. It seems that the talk around the Chelsea Hotel by the older members is that New York has, in many senses, disappeared already — at least in its rawest, most artistic form. But the traces of what once was seem to remain thrillingly alive in Chelsea Hotel — a wire sculptor, a painter, a dancer. A spark. The urge to create. The inviting of a neighbor over for dinner or to sculpt or to dance in the halls. 

Dreaming Walls touches upon many things at once — the passing of time, the shifting of life, the ability to make a home anywhere, and most powerfully, the ability to create art anywhere. Dreaming Walls is an ode to a truly, genuinely artistic space — a space that may physically shift, may fall to the cravings of a corporate and capitalist world, but whose pulsing spirit seems to be unbreakable, held in the beautiful artists who haunt its halls with love and passion. 

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