Patti Smith's 12-year take
"It's really funny when people ask you about that: 'How does it feel to be a rock icon?' When they say that, I always think of uh, like, Mount Rushmore."
– Patti Smith in Patti Smith: Dream of Life
Turns out a good way to make friends with Patti Smith is to refrain from idolizing her – at least at first. Photographer and Dream of Life director Steven Sebring, assigned to shoot Smith for Spin in 1995, "knew her stuff in the [Robert] Mapplethorpe books ... knew the song 'Because the Night' and stuff like that," he says, "but I wasn't totally engrossed in what she was about." Nevertheless, the two "had a spiritual connection," says Sebring, and she invited him to her 1996 comeback stand at Irving Plaza.
"In Detroit she was just this beautiful, soft-spoken, kinda funny girl," he said. "And then onstage, she's ... something else. So I was fascinated with that." He ended up filming her, off and on, for 10 more years and took another two for postproduction. "One reason it took so long is that you just don't enter her life and make film," says Sebring. "She's incredibly private. ... And I didn't set out to make a movie, really; I just set out to document her."
Sebring picked up on Smith at a critical point, just as she was returning to public life and performance after woodshedding in Detroit for 17 years with her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and their two children. While Smith does bio herself in the film, Dream of Life is more arty celebration of her re-emergence than expository documentary – "this sort of an art piece that has a lot to say about her," explains Sebring. "The film is really about '96 on. I dabbled in the past with some old footage that Amos Poe gave me or some stuff from the BBC, just so people that didn't know a lot about her, like I didn't, could. But I wasn't spelling it out for people, either, because I wanted people to go research her."
Dream of Life reminds us that one of Smith's longest and most passionate friendships was with another photographer (Mapplethorpe); its grainy, highly stylized, mostly black-and-white 16mm footage suits Smith's crafted persona (which has itself held steady for 30-odd years) – it's at once rich, contrived, disarming, and unsurprising. What is refreshing is how scenes of Smith wandering around New York, Paris, Malibu, and Tokyo – reciting poetry, visiting graveyards, taking photographs, posing, and playing – ultimately reveal a rock & roll legend reclaiming her old-fashioned Bohemianism in all its robustness. Part of Smith's appeal rests in the tension between her uncomplicated affection for the wildest and most romanticized of artists (Rimbaud, Blake, Coltrane, Waltraud Meier) and her allegiance to service, study, and humility, which lately has taken the form of political action. In Dream of Life, these two impulses merge in an electrifying montage in which Smith reads the Declaration of Independence like the poetry it is and formally indicts George W. Bush for, among other things, "befouling our country's name" and "using the rhetoric of freedom to justify tyranny."
"Who's indicting Bush, you know what I mean?" declares Sebring of his multifaceted subject. "Who's doing a lecture at the Tate Modern and doing a lecture at the church William Blake was christened in and then doing a concert in Vienna at the opera? I mean, who does that?"
"She's such an incredible woman," he concludes, inevitably. "There's no woman on the planet like her."
Patti Smith: Dream of Life screens Monday, Aug. 25, at the Alamo Ritz as part of Alamo Drafthouse's Music Mondays. It opens for a limited theatrical run on Aug. 29.
For an extended interview with director Steven Sebring, see "Playing for the People."