Patti Smith Dream of Life
Dir: Steven Sebring
Fr: 109 min • Verve Pictures • DVD
The very definition of a labour of love, fashion photographer Steven Sebring’s 2-hour long documentary of rock poet Patti Smith took a staggering eleven years to complete. By anybody’s standards, spending an entire decade traversing the globe from one corner to another clutching a camera really feels like fandom beyond the call of duty. And yet that’s what he did. At one stage, finding himself in a debt hole of some £100,000 Sebring was even forced to shelve the film completely. So Patti fans and aficionados should therefore pay tribute to the young director’s enduring stamina and persistence because Dream Of Life will almost certainly turn upside down a whole mass of preconceptions they might have about this most enigmatic of performers.
Of the artist, this much we already know … Aged 19, small town girl Patti ran away to New York City with a head full of poetry – principally the work of the French symbolists, American Beats and the English mysticism of William Blake – and the rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis, Dylan, the Stones and the Who. As she testifies in Dream Of Life, she had no particular goal in mind, merely a raging, overwhelming compulsion to create, to immerse herself in the city’s burgeoning alternative arts scene. So she busked, wrote poetry and rock journalism and acted in plays by Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis and fledgling auteur Sam Shepard. After initiating a relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and moving permanently with him into the notorious Chelsea Hotel, she formed her first band, The Patti Smith Group, whereupon she set sail on one of rock n roll’s most interesting and critically lauded careers. Fiercely androgynous (and androgynously fierce) she’s rightly regarded as one of rock’s most important female artists, at once both the equal of her heroes like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and staggeringly relevant in her own right. Her iconic image, as captured on record sleeves by Mapplethorpe – taggle-haired, boyish garb, no make up – has endured as a true alternative for women in the swinging, sexist world of rock ‘n’ roll.
Icons, however, tend to be cold, distant things and if Dream Of Life achieves one thing it’s to show a Patti few outside of her immediate circle would ever have imagined existed. Indeed, the most revealing moments of the film occur when we see her doing the most ordinary, un-iconic things – such as sharing silly jokes with her band backstage, being introduced to R.E.M. frontman’s Michael Stipe’s mother, or guffawing whilst fluffing a guitar duet with Sam Shepard. True, there’s plenty here of the Patti we do know – and as compelling as the scenes are, it won’t surprise anyone to learn that she uses her position on stage to launch a blistering attack on the US involvement in Iraq. I’ll wager, however, that any long-term fan’s eyebrows will register skyward when they watch her visit to the family home. I mean, Patti Smith in a homely blue-collar kitchen eating burgers with her parents? It’s as shocking as seeing David Bowie fix your toilet u-bend or Audrey Hepburn scrubbing a set of dentures. Believe me, while nothing quite prepares you for this oddly touching domestic moment, you’ll love her all the more afterwards.
Such moments of levity are unleavened by an underpinning sense of tragedy, engendered by the film’s constant unflinching reminders that Patti’s life has been marked, to a greater degree than most, by the death of loved ones. Early soul-mate Robert Mapplethorpe was lost to Aids, as were many of her NY friends and collaborators. Her beloved brother Todd died of a stroke in 1994, and just one month before his death she also lost her husband of 18 years, guitarist and band mate Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. The scenes of the lone Patti wandering about the family home in Detroit or lingering over mementoes of Sonic are just incredibly moving. Indeed, for most of the film she cuts a dignified, solitary figure, whether holding up for the camera and reminiscing about a favourite childhood dress, or visiting William Blake’s grave in London. Oh, Patti!
Beautifully shot on grainy 16-millimetre film and possessing a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness ambience, Dream Of Life isn’t perhaps the best place for the uninitiated to embark upon a journey into the world of Patti Smith. For beginners you really can’t do better than ferret out any of her seminal 1970s albums – (Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Wave, or Easter but especially Horses) – and take it from there. For the Patti hardcore, however, it deserves your attention.