Dreaming Walls: A missed opportunity to portray the legendary Chelsea Hotel

Documentary about a long-term home for many famous artists is dreamy but short on historical context

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel
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Director: Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier
Cert: None
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Merle Lister, Bettina Grossman, Nicholas Pappas, Steve Willis, Zoe Pappas
Running Time: 1 hr 20 mins

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, Jim Morrison.

Any listicle outlining the many notable guests of New York’s Chelsea Hotel would quickly spiral to Homeric dimensions.

The hot spot, built between 1883 and 1885, is where Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey filmed Chelsea Girls, Mariah Carey shot a music video, Bob Dylan held court and wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and Madonna posed for her coffee table book, Sex.

The hotel’s countercultural associations have a darker flipside: it’s where Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of Sid Vicious, was found stabbed to death, and where Dylan Thomas spent his final bourbon-impaired days.


The Chelsea no longer accepts long-term residents but many older artists remain – their lawyers battling on their behalf – as the owners build a boutique tourist trap around them.

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel, directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, eschews decades of fascinating archival material in favour of a portrait of the hotel’s ageing artist community.

There are some lovely moments. Retired choreographer Merle Lister chats to an African-American construction worker about the ghosts he has encountered; the late photographer Bettina Grossman, the hotel’s oldest tenant during production, rifles through her archive.

Various residents rage against the loss of walls and rooms in a space where bohemians were once allowed to submit artworks in lieu of rent. It’s a “slow-motion rape”, says resident Steve Willis.

The Belgian co-directors are more interested in preserving a sense of space than in rehearsing arguments about capitalist greed, the commodification of art and gentrification.

Dreaming Walls, accordingly, is appropriately mystic and slightly ramshackle. A bit too ramshackle, in fact. For all Joachim Philippe and Virginie Surdue’s handsome cinematography, this lyrical documentary lacks focus and, more disappointingly, historical context. A missed opportunity.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic