At her best, Patti Smith crafted some of punk’s finest songs: a fusion of beat poetry with snarling guitars that are filled with both righteous fury and reverence for her idols. At her worst, Patti Smith can be obscure, ponderous, and sanctimonious. Similarly, Steven Sebring’s documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life is riveting at is finest moments and a little too scattered and heavy-handed at others. Both a love letter and tone poem to this punk goddess who created some of the more seminal albums of the ’70s, Patti Smith: Dream of Life veers off where the standard music doc would continue forward.
After opening with a red-hued shot of horses running in slow motion, we see black and white images of blurred landscapes and city skylines as Smith gives a year-by-year account of her life in a voiceover. All Patti Smith fans are familiar with this resume: after releasing albums such as Horses and Easter during the second half of the ’70s, Smith went into a semi-retirement to raise a family. She resurfaced in 1988 to release the album Dream of Life. Following a series of deaths that included artist friend Robert Mapplethorpe, bandmate Richard Sohl, younger brother Todd, and husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, Patti Smith resurrected her career in 1996 with the album Gone Again and her first tour in 16 years. This revivification is where Sebring begins his film. In fact, he filmed for 11 years before completing the documentary.
Like Smith’s poetry, Sebring’s movie is a stream-of-consciousness elegy to the flickering embers of life. “Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate in a series of lucky and unlucky accidents,” Smith intones at the beginning of the movie. As her voice carries with the beautiful lives and untimely deaths of those near to her, Smith does not allow herself to be portrayed as the unfortunate widow plowed over by the muscle of fate. She is filled with sadness, yet finds the power to go on.
For those expecting full performances of “Land: Horses” or “Rock N Roll Nigger,” this intimate portrayal of an artist grasping with her own mortality and of those around her will probably disappoint. Rather than produce the typical concert film, Sebring focuses on Smith off-stage, producing a treasure trove of personal moments that will bring you closer to the artist. A visit to her parents’ backyard is captured with as much reverence as a visit to Israel. Although Sebring's camera lingers too long in some spots, there is an undeniable power to a lot of the film’s quieter moments. As Smith reads a poem to the accompaniment of Philip Glass, she nearly breaks into tears at the sheer power of her words. It is hard not to be equally impressed.
However, it would be near-impossible to make a movie about Patti Smith without portraying the piss and fire she brings to the live performance. In one of the highlights of the film, Sebring uses live audio of Smith indicting George W. Bush on numerous counts of lying, abuse of power, and wanton destruction of the American Dream. Juxtaposed with images of the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Smith’s rage is barely contained on the screen as she levels charges at the inept Commander-in-Chief.
But behind the rage is a poet and musician fiercely devoted to words and emotions. Patti Smith is an artist who proudly wears her influences on her sleeve. Dylan, Burroughs, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Blake, Ginsburg -- they are all referenced time and time again throughout the film. Smith recounts stories (such as meeting Burroughs and Ginsburg), reads Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell,” and discusses the work of Jackson Pollock. Sebring even follows Smith as she visits the graves of each of her idols, focusing as she etches the tomb of Gregory Corso or curls up next to that of Rimbaud.
Just as these artists have influenced Smith, she also has made an impact on an entire generation of musicians. Michael Stipe and Thom Yorke gawp at her with awed reverence. A meeting with Flea inspires him to do handstands and provides for a game of one-upmanship where both compare extreme pissing stories. The film is a celebration of influences, as well as a eulogy of those who have passed on.
The film ends as Smith utters Shelley’s lines: “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep. He hath awakened from the dream of life.” Those poets, her friends, her husband all live on through her. As time bleeds away and Sebring’s film darkens on Patti Smith, she is caught between the lives of the dead and those of her children and friends. In the end, she chooses life.