‘Chelsea on the Rocks’ – best served stirred, not shaken

Bijou Phillps and Abel Ferrara
Abel Ferrara directs Bijou Phillps as Nancy Spungen in a scene from Chelsea on the Rocks.

Day 4 of the 10th annual CineVegas Film Festival (day 2 for us here) saw the usual bizarre mix of filmmakers, press and tourists swarming the Palms on Sunday. I believe I’ve said it here (or somewhere before), but it’s a bit surreal for such a high-profile film festival to be held (mostly) at cinemas located not only within a casino property but abutting a food court, from which the red carpet is located no more than 10 feet. Hence you get a scene like the one yesterday afternoon, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson making a red carpet appearance as gawkers abandoned the snack bar and Panda Express counters to applaud or snap photos of the wrestler-cum-actor with their phones.

I was there not to match raised eyebrow with The Rock but to check out a screening of one of two Abel Ferrara entries in this year’s festival, Chelsea on the Rocks. It’s a documentary about New York’s famous (infamous?) Chelsea Hotel, temporary home to untold numbers of artists, actors, filmmakers, poets and even some plain ol’ ordinary folk over the many decades of its existence, which sees its future in question under new ownership and new management. The casual conversations between Ferrara and various past and present residents of the Chelsea — including Milos Forman, Ethan Hawke and Robert Crumb — would have made for an engaging movie on their own, as well as the atmospheric scenes of the lobby and neighboring businesses that evoke the collective vibe of the property.

But Ferrara intersperses the interviews with unnecessary recreations/imaginings of “famous” situations at the Chelsea, such as Nancy Spungen’s mysterious death and drug overdose-inducing partying by Janis Joplin. Those vignettes, combined with time-killing transitional elements, extend the film about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be, and take away from the colorful, intimate anecdotes that really should be the meat of the film. Overall, it’s an intriguing look at a New York institution, but it’s a bit dizzying with its distractions. The audience’s own ambiguity toward the film may have been evident in the stalled, subdued applause rendered Chelsea in comparison to the enthusiastic reception given to its preceding short, To Kill an American, an inspiring, three-minute short by actor-turned-director Matthew Modine.

Ferrara could not attend the screening, but here’s Chelsea on the Rocks producer Jen Gatien introducing the film:

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