Independent film ‘Chelsea Walls’ gives rare glimpse at lower New York City artists’ hotel

Mike Schoeck

Hollywood has had its share of docu-dramas as rock epics show the glam of the vintage-clad scene in “Almost Famous” or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in 1991’s, “The Doors.” These kinds of films capture the neon glow of artists coming together and recording, playing live, and struggling to remain intact.
“Chelsea Walls,” an independent film directed by Ethan Hawke and based on a Nicole Burdette play, shows the never before seen backdrop of artistry in its off sense.
Set as a day in the life of the thirty residents of lower west side New York’s historic Chelsea Hotel, the film shows the unseen off time hiatus and persistent struggle of making art that lasts.
“Chelsea Walls” features Minnesotan singer-songwriter Terry in one room, played by actor Robert Sean Leonard. Like another notable Minnesotan that once stayed at the Chelsea, namely Bob Dylan, Terry finds himself in the hotel that once housed rock poets Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, as well as visionaries Tennessee Williams and Mark Twain.
Best to the film is Leonard’s singing and playing to Wilco songs under the guidance of songwriter Jeff Tweedy, who also penned the film’s score.
“Promising” is played in the background as Terry and friend Ross (Steve Zahn) arrive at the hotel this one winter day. Almost too great of a song for the movie, Leonard’s rendition and essence capture the style and innuendos of an on-hiatus folk singer like Dylan and newer songwriter Elliott Smith.
The film has awkward moments, typical of independent cinema that tend to drag on, but in the end it capitulates in an overwhelming reprise of hope and spirit, as the songs radiate.
Aged New York City jazz singer Jimmy Scott has a lengthy cameo in the film as Skinny Bones, showing the convergence of old and new residents in the Chelsea.
Scott’s lounge rendition of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” performed live in the Chelsea’s bar, serves well as washed out writer Bud (Kris Kristofferson) is bourbon-soaked and turned between mistress lover Mary (Natasha Richardson) and his absent wife Greta (Tuesday Weld).
Charming young actors Rosario Dawson and Mark Webber star as poetic couple Audrey and Val, struggling to stay together after a long relationship in the savvy Big Apple.
Audrey and Grace (Uma Thurman) are both poets who are immensely fortified in the Chelsea Walls. Grace’s fiance left and made himself home in Hollywood behind the camera and she never sees the genuine side of painter Frank’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) persistent calling.
Ethan Hawke, the 31 year old actor, makes “Chelsea Walls” his first major film as director. The Texas-raised, Gen-X star was seen in “Reality Bites” alongside Winona Ryder and Janeane Garafolo, in the remake of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and harrowing 1993 true story of survival in the Andes Mountains, “Alive.” He is married to Lancome makeup spokeswoman and actress Uma Thurman.
“Chelsea Walls” is now on video and DVD and is a must-see for fans of the older downtown New York Brownstone buildings. It also a coming-together New York film blurred between a day-in-the-life episode of “MTV’s The Real World” and a bohemian soap opera.
For an independent film the legends and songs that resonate in the hotel’s walls can be heard throughout the film, and especially via Jeff Tweedy’s dissonant and eclectic folk soundtrack, of which Leonard’s only penned song is written with biblical hymn lyrics.