Filmmaker Abel Ferrara is the raspy-voiced, wild-haired rascal of an uncle that you wish you had -- though you’re probably glad he wasn’t around to recklessly rock your cradle in his crazed, distracted youth.
He's made his way from the Z-grade and the A-list -- from 1979’s The Driller Killer (Ferrara played the murderous lead) to 1992’s Bad Lieutenant (the film that's arguably the director's masterpiece) -- with bold ‘n’ brash pit-stops in between (the influential 1981 girl-with-a-gun revenge-sploitation flick, Ms. 45). Acting heavy-weights ala Christopher Walken and fascinating on-screen presences like Asia Argento have come along willingly, bravely baring their souls (and, at times, much of their flesh) for forays into his urban borderlands. And Ferrara's anti-strategy as a provocateur certainly continues to make an impact: brace yourself for cinematic giant Werner Herzog’s tribute/re-envisioning with the upcoming Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Chelsea on the Rocks slips right in among the rest of the auteur's touch-and-go oeuvre. A shambling bon mot as loose and louche as the artists, musicians, writers, dealers, and bohemian demimonde that have checked into the legendary Chelsea Hotel in NYC, this quasi-documentary isn’t as slovenly as 2008’s Go Go Tales, Ferrara's homage to a somewhat similar strip-club hangout and its colorful, seedy denizens, but for anyone who’s been seduced by the Ferrara’s sketchy shadow world, it’s a riveting change of pace.
Of course, Ferrara pays no mind to convention: he doesn’t bother IDing many of the residents and visitors he interviews for this freeform doc, and though the director elicits some great yarns and often comes through with an incisive question, there’s little follow-through. But any remotely pop-savvy or cultured viewer would be impressed what a wealth of talent that has passed through the Chelsea’s doors: the icons include Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolf, Mark Twain, William S. Burroughs, Andy Warhol (and famously his Factory girl Edie Sedgwick), and Bob Dylan. A frazzled Milos Forman memorably wanders the halls telling tales of dope smoking and revelry alongside the now-ousted longtime manager Stanley Bard, who once sized up each guest, gave them either a forgiving or price-gouging rate, and floated them on the rent if needed. Dennis Hopper and R. Crumb briefly pass through, as do younger denizens like actress Gaby Hoffmann and painter Lola Schnabel. Ethan Hawke spins a memorable yarn about Bard taking him in -- for a price -- when the actor’s marriage to Uma Thurman was faltering.
Some of the archival footage Ferrara digs up is riveting: a visceral jam session with Rick Danko, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir provides a dreamy snapshot of a time and place through rose-colored granny glasses. Why bother dramatizing the brief, tempestuous, druggy stays of Joplin (Grace Jones is wasted in a extremely brief walkthrough) and Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen, who was stabbed and killed at the Chelsea? (Vicious was accused of the crime, but Ferrara floats a counter-theory, espoused by residents who say they know the truth.) Those scenes add some glam texture but generally detract from the real story: namely, the people who were there, are still alive, and ready to offer up their accounts about the days when there was a dealer on every floor; Vicious would stumble into your party, shoot up and pass out on your couch; artists like Larry Rivers would use the lobby as their exhibition space; and the halls, haunted by long-gone baccanals and, some say, ghosts, would throb with creative energy.
Time will tell whether Ferrara’s mission -- to reveal and preserve the Chelsea’s authentic beating bohemian heart in the face of a board that tragically removed Bard and are said to gentrifying the hotel in pursuit of the mighty buck and ousting longtime residents -- will succeed. He does excel at conveying the Chelsea’s shady, seething spot in American arts and letters, with all of the messy rock ‘n’ roll in his soul.
Chelsea on the Rocks is playing at Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., SF. (415) 267-4893. Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berk. (510) 464-5980. landmarktheatres.com.