Patti Smith: Dream of Life Movie Review
Sebring spent 11 years filming Smith, from her Gone Again comeback album after leaving music behind to raise a family (husband Fred Sonic Smith and two children Jackson and Jesse) in a home in Detroit up to a few years ago, where she is seen raging against the criminal acts of George W. Bush. The center point of the film is a cluttered room filled with memorabilia from Smith's life, the room getting more and more cluttered with detritus (like the cover of Bringing It All Back Home) as the years and the film wear on and she comments on her life and times.
Sebring impressionistically mixes footage of that room with snippets of concerts, travels to cities around the globe, and visits with friends and family, all shot in grainy 16mm color and black and white, Sebring cutting with a swath between both. Like Bruce Weber, Sebring is a fashion photographer, his film bearing hints of Weber's Chet Baker homage Let's Get Lost but with Sebring also photographing Smith in the cryptic and symbolic style of Maya Deren's Meshes in the Afternoon, making the film a well-shot hallucinatory hagiographa.
During one of the cuts to Smith in concert, she sings, "I was free/needed nobody/it was beautiful/it was beautiful" zeroing in on all the limitations Sebring brings to his film. In the press notes, Sebring says that he was unfamiliar with Smith's music and that he came up with the idea for the film during an assigned photo shoot with Smith. In Patti Smith: Dream of Life, he also needs nobody as he trains his camera on Smith to the exclusion of anything else -- her art, her culture, her significance. What we see of Smith in Sebring's film is more like a schizophrenic case study -- offstage, a warm, kind woman from South Jersey who loves her family and waxes nostalgic over a dress she wore as a child to a feral, hot wire jangle of nerves, spew, and unfettered ferocity onstage.
Sebring cuts between the two Smiths with incoherent smacks. She is in New Jersey visiting her parents ("Do you still feed the squirrels, Daddy?" she asks he father) and bonding with her kids ("Mommy? I love you, Mommy." "I love you, Jesse."), or Smith is rolling around on tombstones throughout the world paying tribute to her poet idols (Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Percy Shelley, William S. Burroughs, William Blake) and speaking reverently of Dylan (at one point she tells band members how she tried to hail a cab the way Dylan does in Don't Look Back). She also speaks tenderly of her deceased husband (a trip to Detroit lingers on a room of family photos of Patti, Fred, and family, as Smith holds up an urn containing a portion of the ashes of close friend and famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe). But then Sebring has Smith going wild onstage and ranting with spirit-infused rage at the antics of Bush (in Philadelphia, Smith recites the Declaration of Independence as if it were written by Jack Kerouac before concluding her performance piece by saying, "We indict George W. Bush for befouling our country's name").
All of this is fine, but Sebring brings no structure to any of it and the film rapidly becomes a confusing mess. It is wonderful to finally have a film showcasing Smith, but it is so random, yet hermetic, that it is doubtful it would appeal to anyone but diehard Smith fans. Sebring has captured the essence of Smith but nothing else. To paraphrase an epiphanal Smith cover, "Patti Smith: Dream of Life died for somebody's sins, but not mine."