Chelsea Hotel Doc Captures the Iconic Incubator’s Creativity and Chaos

FILM REVIEW | Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel

With essential letters gone dark, the Chelsea Hotel sign above W. 23rd St. sends message about survival. | Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, ©Clindoeilfilms

BY PUMA PERL | Having made its debut at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, Dreaming Walls is currently screening at the IFC Center in Manhattan and is available on a variety of streaming services. It was directed by Amélie Van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, two young Belgian filmmakers who had idealized life within the walls of the iconic Chelsea Hotel.

For them, it was Patti Smith’s memoir (Just Kids), Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin–a place where artists could find rooms of their own. What they discovered became a story of survival, the past merging with the struggles of the present.

For two years, they visited the hotel and interviewed the long-term residents who have survived the chaos of constant construction and loss of services. These are the holdouts who stayed out of dedication, or simply had no place to go. The current management, the directors noted during a post-screening Q&A at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, did not bar them from filming even the most disruptive conditions. The film’s focus is on the artists of the Chelsea Hotel, the lives they’ve lived and how they’ve changed. The looks back create the dreamlike quality of the title.

The June 17 premiere screening, held at the SVA Theatre (just down the street from the Chelsea Hotel), was filled with current and former residents, alongside their families and friends. For me, it was a very special event, as I have interviewed many past and present Chelsea Hotel residents, some of whom were in attendance. In early 2020, I spent many hours with the multi-talented Gina Healy and her family, which led to the article published on this site on January 31. Gina had followed in her sister’s footsteps as a dancer, which had led her to meet Merle Lister, a pioneer of modern dance, and the first person the filmmakers interviewed. In 1983, at a party celebrating the hotel’s 100th birthday, Gina was part of Lister’s video project called Dance of the Spirits, based on the legend of the restless spirit who roams the haunted hallways dressed in a long white gown. They performed it live and on film. In late 2019, Lister was contacted by the directors and invited Gina to create the dance once again.

L to R: Gina Healy and Merle Lister, at a Tribeca Film Festival screening of “Dreaming Walls.” | Photo by Blake Davis

Because of the theme of the film, it is one of the most haunting passages, as Lister directs Gina to embrace the spirit of the dance, interspersed with a very young Gina dancing with the choreographer. The viewer can easily believe they are dancing with ghosts. Merle Lister is vital and engaging in the film, walking through the halls with her walker, getting updates on projects, dancing a mambo with a construction worker. I was fortunate to correspond with both Gina and Ms. Lister following the film.

“It was a thrill to be reunited with Merle and to revisit the Dance of the Spirits on the hotel staircase and to be part of this beautiful film,” wrote Gina.

Ms. Lister added, “I was pleased with the film because it encompassed my work as a choreographer from my archival material and I was able to use what was happening in the present time, i.e. construction, to create new choreographic work.” Lister originally moved into the Chelsea in 1981 and has made it through, with no intentions of ever leaving.

One of the longest-term residents, and one of the most fascinating, is Texas-born composer/musician Gerald Busby (click here for the 2016 arts feature that served as our introduction to each other). Now 86, Busby has survived the loss of friends and lovers as well as his own health struggles. He almost lost his residence at the hotel due to the addiction that took over after losing his partner to HIV. With help from friends he was able to hang on and was downgraded to a studio where he still lives and composes.

In the Chelsea Hotel, Gerald Busby listens to, and watches, “Fantasy for Piano,” one of the compositions created at the computer keyboard. | File photo by Isaias Fanlo

We don’t see a lot of him in the film but his presence at the premiere, with his young friends assisting him, was uplifting. He told me that he found the film “extraordinary.” “It epitomizes the kind of art that becomes the essence of the very thing it describes. The film is a revelation of the spirit of the Chelsea Hotel, the perfect tribute to the frail and broken characters featured but never named, and to the hotel, as it was and is.”

Award-winning photographer and visual artist Linda Troeller is a former Chelsea Hotel resident who had been fighting eviction, but eventually had to leave because she could not tolerate the dust and toxins. I interviewed her in 2015, shortly after the publication of her book, Living In The Chelsea Hotel. At the time, she told me, “I believe in the power of cultural memory and that the creative input and output that’s evolved at the historic Chelsea Hotel will emerge somehow in a new way.” After seeing the film, she shared with me that although “there were lots of back stories and knowing the right people, there is no denying this deep look into the value and obsession for one’s art that bubbled out of doorways and drifted into people’s rooms… it well captures this.”

In my past, the Chelsea Hotel was where Dylan wrote Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowland, where Sid may have killed Nancy (or not), where I once visited the Grateful Dead, where Alejandro Escovedo wrote, in his song Chelsea Hotel ’78, “And it makes no sense / And it makes perfect sense.”

Through my work as a journalist, doors have opened into a bohemia of which I was only vaguely aware, and that is where this film lives, in the ghosts of the past and the dreams of the present.

Currently screening at Manhattan’s IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.) through at least Thurs., July 15 (by which time it should be determined if the doc will extend its run for at least one more week), For tickets and info, click here. Also streaming on Amazon Prime and other online venues. Runtime: 80 minutes. Distributor: IFC Films. To visit the documentary’s page on the Magnolia Films website, click here.

L to R: Maya Duverdier and Amelie van Elmbt, directors of “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel.” | Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Promo poster image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.


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