Patti Smith: Dream of Life isn’t so much a straightforward biopic as a meandering documentary. Director Steven Sebring followed Smith for over a decade, starting with her musical resurgence with Bob Dylan in the mid-1990s and ending with Smith’s show for the closing of the legendary underground music club CBGB in 2006.
Fans and newcomers alike should not expect the straight story on Smith. Instead, the film ambles through a decade with “the godmother of punk” in a manner that is both na’ve and gripping. However, Sebring treats his subject in a guarded manner. This has a tendency to both fail subtly and succeed admirably.
This is not a concert film – at times, Sebring seems almost impatient to bypass segments of live performances. Because much of the movie is shot in a claustrophic manner, there is a lack of wider perspective.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life gains access to its subjects in a way that most documentaries simply cannot afford. In one scene, Smith and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers play clarinet and trumpet together by the sea while trading stories about awkward urinary experiences on the road.
In another scene, Smith takes the filmmakers on a pilgrimage to her parents’ house in New Jersey. They eat hamburgers and talk about the trees in the backyard. There is also a tender sequence in which Smith reads a poem to an audience while composer Philip Glass accompanies her on the piano, enhancing the weight and profundity of Smith’s voice.
Although Smith is hardly a virtuoso force musically, she knows how to make simple arrangements resonate for decades. She is also a widow and a mother. What comes across most clearly about Smith, however, is her willingness to confront life head on. This much is well-documented in Patti Smith: Dream of Life.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life opens at Cinéma du Parc (3675 Ave. du Parc) this Friday. Tickets cost $7.50 for students 13-25 years (must show proof of age).
Trademark: Integrated the beat poetry performance style with three-chord rock. Her “unladylike” language defied the disco era.
Born: December 30, 1946.
Family:Mother, Beverly, was a jazz singer and a Jehovah’s Witness. Father, Grant, worked in a Honeywell factory.
Education: She graduated from Deptford Township High School,NJ in 1964. Smith went to work in a factory afterwards. She was voted “Class Clown” in her senior year.
Signature Album: Horses(1975), fused punk rock and spoken poetry. Influences: Poets Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake.
Politics: Green Party (US), backed Ralph Nader in the 2000 US, presidential election and John Kerry in 2004.