Ghosts of Janet, Sid haunt Chelsea Hotel film

May 24, 2008 7:56:05 PM PDT
Most documentaries stick with interviews of living people. But since this one's about New York's Chelsea Hotel and its rock 'n' roll aura, it seems natural that the ghosts of Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious turn up.

For "Chelsea on the Rocks," which premiered Friday at the Cannes Film Festival, director Abel Ferrara ("Bad Lieutenant") strung together archival footage and interviews of the artists, writers and actors who have lived there, in typical documentary fashion. He also hired actors to play Joplin and Vicious for trippy flashbacks.

Both rockers battled drugs and demons during their stays there. Leonard Cohen wrote a song about a sexual encounter with Joplin on an unmade bed there. And the Chelsea is where Vicious' girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, died of a stab wound.

The Chelsea has been a mecca for bohemia for decades, attracting brilliant ? and often desperate and doomed ? artists. Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Arthur Miller and Arthur C. Clarke are just a few of the greats who spent time there.

Actor Dennis Hopper, who stayed there early in his career, told reporters, "We were all living on the edge, the edge of what, I'm not sure, but we were living on the edge of it.

"A number of us fell in the hole, and some of us stood on the rim, and some of us got out of there," he said. "But it was a really special, exciting time, and I'll always cherish it."

Jamie Burke, who plays Vicious in the movie, calls the hotel "a vortex."

"You get this crazy ... artistic tornado of death and destruction and love and broken dreams," he said.

Vicious was charged with second-degree murder in Spungen's death, but died of a heroin overdose in 1979 at age 21 before standing trial. In Ferrara's on-screen vision, the Sex Pistols bassist was not responsible for her death.

Ferrara, who moved into the hotel to make the movie, said he wasn't sure why he used actors to re-imagine the past ? he speculated it might be "a crutch," or his background as a director of fictional tales.

"It's basically (that) my training of approaching how to really get to the heart of something is with writing scenes and actors playing them," he said.

Ferrara's film includes interviews with actor Ethan Hawke, who sings a song he wrote during a stay at the hotel, Hopper, director Milos Forman and cartoonist R. Crumb.

Another important figure is Stanley Bard, who ran the hotel for nearly five decades, helping many artists along the way. Bard was pushed aside last year in a management change that has left residents worried that the Chelsea will become a standard boutique hotel.

Bard's departure, and fears for the hotel's soul, are the backdrop for the documentary. Strangely, though, the film never fully explores exactly how the hotel has changed, which left some Cannes critics confused. Part of the problem may be that the Chelsea's future is still unclear.

"The hotel the way it's been run has ended," said producer Jen Gatien. "And its fate has yet to be determined."