A documentary that was 11 years in the making, Patti Smith: Dream of Life focuses on the poster girl for the protopunk scene as she attempts to revive her musical career. Directed and filmed in black-and-white by commercial fashion photographer Steven Sebring, the film focuses less on Smith's past and more on who she has become, as well as her philosophical ramblings on various subjects. There is no real chronological structure to the film, and by not supplying viewers with enough Smith history, the film inevitably makes itself only available to those who are already fans. However, Smith was never about being accessible and conventional, so it is perhaps only fitting that her documentary does away with standard rock doc traditions. Check out the mixed reviews after the jump.Village Voice:
If Patti Smith's narration to Dream of Life was simplified into a stanza, it might go something like this: As long as I can remember I sought to be free/Bob Dylan once tuned this guitar for me/My mission is to give people my energy/Fred, Jesse, and Jackson are my family tree/New generations, rise up, rise up, take to the streets/Me and Flea talking about pee. Her much more long-winded monologues are just as randomly assembled in the actual documentary, 109 mostly black-and-white minutes of punk's wet nurse floating through the modern world while endlessly ruminating on mortality, art, and the occasional bodily function. Problem is, there's nary a hint of context, even with biographic essentials: When Patti sprinkles the ashes of "Robert" onto her palm, we're momentarily left to guess that's Mapplethorpe; when she and erstwhile paramour Sam Shepard are acoustically jamming and their respective tattoos come up, the playwright muses, "That was a weird night at the Chelsea." More, please?
Eleven years in the making, fashion photographer and artist Steven Sebring's gorgeous, up-close-and-personal doc about the legendary rocker is both a journey into Smith's storied past and a portrait of her life today-less a movie about a musician than a transfixing meditation on her own iconography.
"Patti Smith: Dream of Life" is frequently beautiful and intermittently haunting and could be called a meditation on aging and mortality, an intimate study of a peculiar variety of fame and a portrait of a genuinely remarkable person. It has played at Sundance and Berlin and all over the film festival world, at least in part because everyone's so amazed it actually got finished. Still, while "Dream of Life" succeeds on its own terms, I can't help feeling there's a missed opportunity here, an opportunity to make clear to younger women and men just how amazing Patti Smith's journey has been. (Maybe, like Julien Temple's wonderful "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten," that kind of film can't be made while the subject is alive — but I'm not quite sure why that would be so.)
You may not learn everything you want to know in "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," an impressionistic portrait of that punk godhead, but you learn just about everything you need. Created over a heroic 11 years, it was directed and mostly shot by Steven Sebring, a high-end commercial photographer whose perseverance and conspicuous unfamiliarity with, or disregard for, the conventions of nonfiction cinema (not to mention the apparently deep-enough pockets that freed him to follow his own muse) have inspired a lovely, drifty first feature that feels less like a documentary and more like an act of rapturous devotion.
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.
A knowledge of Smith's landmark contribution as a rock 'n' roll pioneer is not essential, and the film should be a joy for anyone interested in pop culture of the past 40 years. Sebring does not take a conventional route here, which is fitting for his subject. The long gestation period for the film has afforded an intimacy and ease that allows him to penetrate Smith's inner and outer worlds, weaving back and forth in time from her arrival in New York in the late 1960s to raising her two children in Detroit with husband Fred "Sonic" Smith to her triumphant return to performing in the mid-'90s. Structure is anchored in the bedroom of Smith's cluttered New York apartment and jumps around from there as she reflects on her life and art.
But having privileged access and elucidating a mysterious figure are two different things. Sebring makes the crucial mistake of assuming his viewers are all Smithologists. (Even for them, the film might be too vague to become a holy object.) Amazingly, there is no testimony to contextualize her impact on the punk world, nothing at all about the horrendous 1977 onstage injury-she broke several neck vertebrae-that almost cost Smith her career. The live footage is choppy and interrupted; almost perversely, we never hear Smith's gorgeous hit "Because the Night." And the great question mark over Smith's life-why she retreated from the spotlight along with her husband, White Panther and former MC5er Fred "Sonic" Smith-is not probed. Instead, we get a lot of the singer's poetry and recent political activism, and many sweet moments with her children and doting parents. Sebring is a sentimentalist, and his film comes alive when Smith melts into warm memories of going to Coney Island with Robert Mapplethorpe and getting hot dogs. But the opportunity to introduce newbies to a serious music-world icon-and her significance-feels squandered.
'Patti Smith: Dream of Life' opens today in limited release