Last year, we featured a clip of Nico singing “Chelsea Girls” at the Hotel Chelsea, the much-mythologized Manhattan institution that, at one time or another, housed a range of cultural figures including Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Iggy Pop, Gaby Hoffmann, Sid Vicious, and Arthur Miller. “The Chelsea in the Sixties seemed to combine two atmospheres,” writes Miller in a 1978 essay on his time there. “A scary optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future, and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family. That at least was the myth one nursed in one’s mind, but like all myths it did not altogether stand inspection.” That era more than arguably marked the Chelsea’s social and cultural heyday.
A few years later, in 1981, BBC’s arts documentary series Arena made its way to New York to investigate the history and then-current state of this veritable counterculture incubator. The film spends time with current Chelsea residents, former Chelsea residents, and Chelsea habitués notable, creative, and otherwise — the notably creative Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, and Quentin Crisp all make appearances. It also talks to the hotel’s staff and follows a tour guide as he leads a curious group through its storied corridors. “With all my misgivings about the Chelsea,” Miller reflects, “I can never enter it without a certain quickening of my heartbeat. There is an indescribably homelike atmosphere which at the same time lacks a certain credibility. It is some kind of fictional place, I used to think. As in dreams things are out front that are concealed in other hotels.”
For more, you might want to spend time with “An Oral History of the Chelsea Hotel: Where the Walls Still Talk,” which appeared in Vanity Fair last October.
Find the documentary above listed in our collection of 625 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.