Patti Smith: Dream of Life

The titular rocker-poet gets a suitable portrait in Steven Sebring's "Patti Smith: Dream of Life."

With: Patti Smith, Jackson Smith, Jesse Smith, Grant Smith, Beverly Smith, Tom Verlaine, Sam Shepard, Philip Glass, Benjamin Smoke, Lenny Kaye, Oliver Ray, Tony Shanahan, Jay Dee Daugherty. Voice: Patti Smith.

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.

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.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Production: A Thirteen/WNET New York and Clean Socks presentation. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Steven Sebring, Margaret Smilow, Scott Vogel. Directed by Steven Sebring. Poetry, Patti Smith.

Crew: Camera (Duart color/Technicolor/B&W, 16mm-to-DV), Phillip Hunt, Sebring; editors, Angelo Corrao, Lin Polito; music, Smith; sound (Dolby Digital), Sebring, Jorgen Axelvall; sound designers, Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith; re-recording mixer, Tony Volante. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2008. Running time: 109 MIN.

With: With: Patti Smith, Jackson Smith, Jesse Smith, Grant Smith, Beverly Smith, Tom Verlaine, Sam Shepard, Philip Glass, Benjamin Smoke, Lenny Kaye, Oliver Ray, Tony Shanahan, Jay Dee Daugherty. Voice: Patti Smith.

More Film

  • In Search

    Rushlake Takes World Rights for Two Acclaimed African Docs (EXCLUSIVE)

    DURBAN–Cologne-based Rushlake Media has acquired world sales rights for “The Sound of Masks,” by Portuguese filmmaker Sara Gouveia, and “In Search,” by Kenyan director Beryl Magoko. The announcement was made Thursday at the Durban Intl. Film Festival, where both documentaries are screening. Rushlake’s Philipp Hoffmann says the two films will bolster the company’s growing slate [...]

  • The Lion King

    Box Office: 'The Lion King' Crossing $100 Million Milestone

    Ahead of its domestic debut, Disney’s “The Lion King” is already roaring past $100 million in ticket sales globally. The hyper-realistic remake of the animated classic has generated $94.5 million from a handful of markets at the international box office and is expected to hit triple digits on Thursday. “The Lion King” opened Wednesday in [...]

  • 'It: Chapter Two' Trailer Released: Losers

    'It: Chapter Two' Trailer: Adult Losers Club Faces Off With Pennywise

    In the second trailer for “It: Chapter Two,” the Losers Club, now adults, return to face the evil force that is Pennywise. “Something happens to you when you leave this town, the farther away, the hazier it all gets,” says adult Mike in a voiceover. “But me, I never left. I remember all of it.” [...]

  • Richard Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie Starring

    Richard Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie to Star in Indie Comedy 'The Last Shift'

    “The Shape of Water” star Richard Jenkins and “What Men Want” actor Shane Paul McGhie have been cast in the independent comedy “The Last Shift.” The two will appear alongside Ed O’Neill, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“High Fidelity”), Birgundi Baker (“The Chi”) and Allison Tolman (“Fargo”). Andrew Cohn is directing from his own script. “The Last [...]

  • The Band Doc 'Once Were Brothers'

    Robbie Robertson Documentary 'Once Were Brothers' to Open Toronto Film Festival

    “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” will rock the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary recounts the story of one of Canada’s musical legends — a man who served as both lead guitarist and primary songwriter on a group that introduced the likes of “The Weight” and “The Night [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content