The titular rocker-poet gets a suitable portrait in Steven Sebring’s “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” which runs radically against the grain of American-made pop music docs. The result of 11 years of filming (much of it in wonderfully grainy black-and-white 16mm), pic is designed as a stream-of-consciousness experience, following Smith as she revives her music career and considers every aspect of her life. Death, too, plays a stark role, and the textured, thoughtful results may prove too cerebral and abstract for auds beyond Smith’s hardcore followers, but long-term, this will be a loss-leader that gains much respect.
What Sebring — a fashion and pop photographer, painter and commercials maker — doesn’t know about doc filmmaking never hurts the film. Starting in 1995, when Smith recorded her comeback album “Gone Again” and toured with her idol, Bob Dylan, after having not performed live for 16 years, Sebring’s project clearly developed as it went along, and the effect of watching the film is seeing something in the making — like rummaging through Smith’s closet, and stumbling across interesting stuff.
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In voiceover, Smith briefly sums up her background as the daughter of Chicago parents (Grant and Beverly Smith, both lovingly seen at home) and the cultural child of ’60s art-political foment. At 23, a fledgling and serious poet, she became friends with artist Robert Mapplethorpe and teamed with him for a series of works that belonged to the early phases of performance art. Other encounters (such as with then-hell-raising playwright Sam Shepard) proved crucial, and led her into rock ‘n’ roll.
“Dream of Life” distinctively treat the particulars of her early career in only glancing references, none of them in chronological order, with Smith sometimes seen obliquely.
She sits in a corner of her bedroom amid some of her favorite personal and nostalgic objects (a childhood dress, a Persian urn containing the late Mapplethorpe’s ashes), and mock-threatens Sebring to not budge until he’s decided to finally finish the movie. She’s seen almost sentimentally at her old home outside Detroit, where she moved after her halcyon New York days in the ’70s. She visits the graves of the poets she reveres: Allen Ginsberg, Percy Shelley, William Blake, William S. Burroughs. Her manner is generally so gentle and meek that her angry, wild behavior onstage offers the impression of a woman with two different personalities.
Sebring, who operated his own camera for much of the filming, seems unsure how to lens and frame Smith onstage, as if intimidated by her animal side.
However, in the quiet of rooms and studios, or walking with Smith (and her daughter Jesse) through Central Park, or finding the right images to accompany her loving descriptions of the shocking number of people in her life who’ve died, (including her husband, Fred), the filmmaking is more assured, but also comfortably loose and able to respond to the moment. When Smith’s son (and fellow bandmate) Jackson cuts up in front of Sebring’s camera, it’s exactly the sort of flotsam that a more conventional doc would trim; here, it’s central to suggesting the world Smith inhabits.
Sebring has been supported by some fine (film) bandmates of his own, including co-d.p. Phillip Hunt, editors Angelo Corrao and Lin Polito, and masterful sound designers Margaret Crimmins and Greg Smith.