Ethan Hawke has always fancied himself the bastard child of the Beatnik generation and it’s all over his feature-length directorial debut Chelsea Walls. I’ve seen the walls of the Chelsea Hotel. The pained artwork of its tenants (past and present) covers those walls. And if those walls could talk they’d probably sound something like this. Whether you’ll want to listen is an entirely different matter. Since Hawke readily admits that watching Chelsea Walls is not unlike eating shit (or watching “the insufferable hunger of the damned”), let us call a spade a spade. Chelsea Walks is equal parts obnoxious, meandering and, well, insufferable. Shot on what looks like the video left over from Richard Linklater’s Tape, the film purports to celebrate the bohemian air that flows through the Chelsea Hotel. Hawke’s direction is quaint and ethereal though Nicole Burdette’s screenplay is less concerned with engaging the spirits of the past than it is with, well, blowing hot air. A young black kid’s love for Langston Hughes is the only suggestion that the bohemia of New York’s past (the Harlem Renaissance, the Chelsea Hotel, Warhol’s Factory) has carried on. No one here, save jazzman Jimmy Scott, is anywhere near as interesting as past Hotel residents Sarah Bernhardt, William S. Burroughs, Sid Vicious or, hell, even Bob Dylan. For having the least diarrhea of the mouth, Robert Sean Leonard’s tortured musician becomes, by default, the film’s haunting center. His phone conversation with a former lover suggests a man running from love to a place of false illusions. But with single rooms at the hotel now ranging from $135 to $250 a night, it’s a shame that the only people who could ever afford to stay there are the actors playing the film’s tortured-artists-without-jobs.
Surprisingly, Chelsea Walls looks better on video than it did on the big screen. There's no real way of making this inscrutable exercise look conventionally appealing yet the film's "blue room" scenes are very appealing. Grain is the film's worst enemy but contrast is impressive during sequences that used any sort of lighting. The Jeff Tweedy soundtrack sounds on the disc's English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack but dialogue (however intimate and perfectly audible) is compromised by ambient noise that may have proved too difficult for the DVD makers to remove.
Ethan Hawke provides passionate commentary on this DVD edition of his feature film directorial debut. Hawke has nothing but love for Chelsea Walls and you can definitely hear it in his voice. Hawke is most charming when he goes on about Jimmy Scott. Also included here is the film's theatrical trailer, one deleted scene (the special features section implies there are more) and junket interviews with a bored Robert Sean Leonard and Hawke, who talks about Richard Linklater's influence on his career.
Not for the faint of heart, Chelsea Walls arrives just in time for anyone hankering for a really hot Beatnik summer.