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Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY — Twelve years in the making, “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” is a unique record of an artist’s journey.
The first film by fashion photographer Steven Sebring, it stitches together layer upon layer of human experience to paint a portrait of the artist as a tireless and dynamic worker for music, poetry, peace, family and friends.
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.
First stop is a poignant visit to the lived-in house she shared with her husband and kids in Detroit until his death in 1994. In fact, much of the film deals with friends who are no longer alive, but the tone is elegiac, not morbid. So when she pulls out a vial of Robert Mapplethorpe’s ashes or talks about William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, she is just honoring their influence. When she visits the graves of her mentors, William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud, she sees herself as part of a living tradition of poetry.
“We all have a voice,” she says, “and the responsibility to use it.”
New York is central to her life and the film, and there is some wonderful archival footage from the early ’70s, where she talks about how she had to leave her childhood home, across from a square dance hall in South Jersey, and venture to the big city to discover her voice. Later she reads her poem, “Prayer for New York.”
Although there are some classic scenes of her onstage in the heyday of the Manhattan punk club CBGB, this is not a performance film; it’s more meditative and musing than about her music. There are no big, show-stopping moments, but there are some lovely, smaller ones.
In one scene, she and her old friend and lover Sam Shepard sit in the corner of her apartment playing vintage guitars, singing the blues tune “Sitting on Top of the World” as Sebring focuses on their feet tapping time in unison. Later, when Smith visits her elderly and entertaining parents in New Jersey, there is a shot held for several seconds of the couple holding hands, and in the background we hear the sound of a ticking clock as if it’s counting off their time together.
Sebring follows Smith around the world as she visits the Middle East and listens to the music of Muslims and Jews praying, Buddhist monks chanting in Japan and speeches at a peace rally in Washington. He shot most of the footage himself in 16 millimeter, some in color, some in black and white, and the varied looks and textures help give the film character. Skillful editing by Angelo Corrao and Lin Polito pull the divergent threads together from what was obviously a massive amount of material.
Throughout, Smith’s approachability keeps it real. When a fan steps onto an elevator with her, she laughs when she’s called a rock icon. That’s for Mount Rushmore. She’s a working artist, and like another one of her heroes, Walt Whitman, she’s writing for young poets who years from now may be inspired by this beautiful record of her life’s work.
PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE
Clean Socks and Thirteen/WNET New York
Director: Steven Sebring
Producers: Steven Sebring, Martha Smilow, Scott Vogel
Director of cinematography: Phillip Hunt, Steven Sebring
Editor: Angelo Corrao, Lin Polito
Running time — 109 minutes
No MPAA rating
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival