If all you know from Patti Smith is the wicked parody by Gilda Radner, whose foul-mouthed Candy Slice debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1978, then Patti Smith: Dream of Life is probably not for you. This new documentary by Steven Sebring is going to seem too serious, too arty, too insufferably pretentious by half. It's all those things, whether you are a Patti Smith devotee or not, but it's also a remarkable and intimate character study of a singular individual, who just happens to be one of the most influential artists of our time.
Eleven years in the making, with all the lack of continuity that you'd expect from such an extended shooting schedule, Dream of Life is like some sort of qualude-soaked sleep walk, more dream at times than life. We ride with Smith on trains and in her limo; join her as she visits the graves of literary heroes William Blake and Gregory Corso; hang out with her and her parents in their New Jersey kitchen (the charming couple passed away before the film was completed); walk with her as she listens for the breath of ghosts at late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith's house outside Detroit; join her backstage and on stage in Atlanta and London; watch her children, Jesse and Jackson, grow up before our eyes as the cameras roll and roll and roll. We learn that Smith is an unromantic romantic, peering over her shoulder in the Chelsea Hotel in New York to watch her unpack little treasures and keepsakes -- from a handmade dress she wore as a little girl to an urn containing some of her dear friend Robert Mapplethorpes's ashes, the contents of which she opens and pours into her hand while describing the texture of the photographer's remains. (All I could think about were pieces of the dead man's teeth.)
In a conversation with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, we are informed that once, on a long flight in a tiny airplane, Smith had to pee so badly that she urinated in a bottle without the person sitting next to her (the pilot) noticing. Sam Shepard, she tells us, gave her a 1930s black Gibson acoustic guitar in 1971; she still plays it (painfully, at one point in the film, with Shepard) and "Bob Dylan himself" tuned it in 1975, as if we could believe that Patti Smith was ever impressed by someone as mainstream as Bob Dylan. She was, watching Don't Look Back so many times that she can demonstrate the silly way Dylan tries to hail a cab in that film, which her documentarian confesses he has never seen.
If all this sounds melancholic, nostalgic, and random, it is, which is not to say Dream of Life is an impossible film to watch. It follows, for better or worse, Smith's opening line of narration: "Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents." Not exactly the most inspiring words to use as the organizational structure for a film, let alone to live by, but you have to admire their economy. Although the insertion of the word "adventure" gives the statement an unsettlingly bourgeois tinge when applied to Patti Smith's life. Then again, this is an artist who meditates before the altar of pure freedom and, for all her disregard for convention, likes to shop at Prada. Even less insightful is the poem Smith tells us that Allen Ginsberg sent her upon the death of her husband in 1994: "Let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life's celebration." Must be from Ginsberg's little-studied Hallmark period...
The thing that makes the film worth its almost two-hour running time, of course, is Patti Smith, who comes across as gracious, funny, and completely sincere. Unfortunately, as she is sharing herself so openly with us, director Steven Sebring is busy digging into his bag of tricks as a fashion photographer, pulling out shots and crops and dalliances in black and white that would look perfectly at home in a Coach, DKNY, or Ralph Lauren ad, to name but a few of his clients. Sebring, for example, is incapable of simply showing performers at CBGB's in real time and with real sounds emanating from their guitars; instead we get impressionistic, slow-motion, headless horsemen, with mournful cello music in the background.
At least when we see Smith on stage, the director restrains himself and documents his subject reasonably faithfully, putting his artistic vision on the shelf for a change. I could have done with a lot more performance footage, not because I wish Sebring had made more of a concert film than a memento mori, but to permit the artist's art to speak for itself.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life opens October 17, 2008 at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Patti Smith and director Steven Sebring will be at the Lumiere on October 19 to talk about the film and sign copies of the companion book. For tickets and information, visit landmarktheatres.com.
Patti Smith and her band perform live at the Warfield on Monday, October 20, 2008. For concert tickets, visit aeglive.com.