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Always at the Carlyle

The last time I went to New York, it was to see a singer/songwriter that I love named Stew. I’d always catch him in San Diego (one time it was a show at Java Joe’s with only 4 people in attendance). His autobiographical play Passing Strange made it to Broadway, won some awards, and Spike Lee filmed it (I met Lee at the show and he was a jerk, but that’s another story for another time). I remember the hotel I stayed at being so ridiculously expensive. But hearing that the Carlyle, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has some rooms going for $20,000 a night, perhaps my room was a bargain.

So, is a light documentary on a hotel that the rich and famous stay at, that you’ll probably never go to, seem of interest? Well, it was to me. Even if it did feel like a commercial for the place at times.

This place has been around for 85 years. Clooney jokingly comments that that’s fine for a wine, but a little scary when he’s in the old elevators.

The two biggest things the Carlyle might be known for is that it’s the place where Woody Allen’s jazz band has played once a week for years. Thankfully, the filmmaker didn’t shy away from covering that (we get to see Jeff Goldblum and and Tommy Lee Jones talking about how thrilled they were to see Allen play his clarinet).

The other thing people outside of New York might know it for is that it’s where Prince William and Kate stayed when they arrived in the States.

It was a blast that they got so many big names to talk about the hotel. George Clooney is the one you see in the trailers, but you’ll also hear from Jon Hamm, Piers Morgan (who tells a story about Princess Di, Steve Jobs, and Michael Jackson in an elevator together, and her belting out “Billie Jean”), Condoleezza Rice, Lenny Kravitz, Regis Philbin, directors Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson, Roger Federer, Vera Wang, Naomi Campbell, and Anjelica Huston. Huston tells some stories about her former boyfriend Jack Nicholson partying there, but the stories the staff have to tell about him are much better, and not at all what you’d expect. One of them involves Nicholson giving flowers to staff members, a valet that he made a paparazzi photographer give a photo to, and yelling, and quickly apologizing, to a maid that woke him up in the morning.

Harrison Ford, who is always uncomfortable in interviews, seemed to really enjoy talking about the Carlyle. We also heard from Buster Poindexter, and another singer — Alexa Joel, shown singing her dad’s song “Just the Way You Are.”

Alan Cumming tells a story about taking a photo nude in front of the hotel, and his attempt to do it reminded me of the documentary Man on Wire, as well as how The Doors had to sneak a photo in front of the Morrison Hotel, after already being told they couldn’t. It’s hysterical to hear Cumming say that he recorded his album there just so he could use that nude photo for the cover.

Hearing from the celebrities is so much fun, and it’s just as interesting to hear from the various staff members, including a concierge that stutters. It’s a lot less interesting to hear from the handful of rich folks that are regulars. If we don’t know who they are, it’s really not all that interesting to hear a billionaire drone on about how much they love the place.

At one point, chef Anthony Bourdain says that the hotel is “completely nuts” and one could complain that this documentary never really shows that side of it.

Bruce Willis has always had a reputation as being a jerk, and hearing a story from the guy working the elevator proves it (spoiler alert: they were in a play together, with the elevator operator being the lead).

It’s fun to hear staff members say things like, “Paul McCartney and Richard Gere walked in at about the same time. I didn’t know who to help first. I shut my eyes, thought about it for a second and…decided to go with the Beatle.”

One staff member commented on Donald Trump showing up for a party, and saying about the hotel, “This place is a joke.”

That led to a rather funny cameo. I’ve actually never seen a cameo in a documentary before, but Bill Murray looked like he just happened to be walking by when that conversation took place, and as he was walking out the door, he just kept saying what a joke the Carlyle was.

Lots of times the celebs tell stories about the staff members they like. Tommy Lee Jones, not always the friendliest guy around, tells a wonderful story about discovering a staff member liked opera. He flew him to his place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to spend a few days with him and his wife to attend the opera house in town.

There is some alluding to the fact that Marilyn Monroe met with John F. Kennedy here, and that Paul Newman created his salad dressing while dining there.

It was interesting to learn a little about stars I knew very little about. Those would include Eartha Kitt, cabaret singer Bobby Short, and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch (who passed away during the three-year production of this documentary).

I also knew very little about artist Ludwig Bemelman, creator of the Madeleine books. Well, the hotel’s “Bemelmans Bar” has his illustrations all over the walls and lamp shades.

There are some rooms that go for as low as a thousand dollars a night. You might think that’s pricey, but…they will embroider your name or initials on the pillow. That surely beats having a few stale mints lift on it at the Motel 6.

Perhaps some will be turned off, watching A-listers and the one percenters (especially when you listen to writer Fran Lebowitz’ bizarre complaint).  But for those of us that get a kick out of TMZ, this is right in our wheelhouse.

At least Sofia Coppola realizes the absurdity of a glass of orange juice from room service costing $50.

This gets 3 ½ stars out of 5.