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Film Reviews

New Patti Smith Documentary: Dream of Life - Reviewed
Chris Roberts , December 5th, 2008 07:23

Patti Smith: Dream of Life is an impressionistic portrait of a true rock legend. Chris Roberts is awestruck.

A few people, a charmed few, are lucky enough to give off light when a camera is on them. Patti Smith does not, but she does have this tremendously rare quality of giving off depth whether she’s trying to or not.

Unlike most 'icons' she has earned her place on the Mount Rushmore of Rock. _ Horses_ alone would justify her considerable status, nevermind that the rest of her back catalogue has been kept 'relevant' by someone like P J Harvey basing their entire career on it. All arguments about who’s the most pioneering, stereotype-defying female in Rock History should begin and end with Smith. As should the old chestnut about whether it’s possible for a writer to make a good record. Yet it only takes the wrong journalist or wrong clip to make this sad-smiling widow seem overly pompous and worthy - all that fusty reverence she has for Blake and Rimbaud and Bob Bloody Dylan can make her come across like a sincere but dull literature professor. But, in person she is notably unpretentious. She is much more at ease with people who talk to her about stuff than people who fall to their knees and act like they’re meeting Mary Magdalene.

Steven Sebring’s often lovely film is perfect in phases, and likeably clueless in others. Sebring made his name as a fashion photographer, and first met Smith in 1995 on a Spin shoot. He never saw her in concert until the Gone Again tour, so his perspective is not that of an authentic "I-was-there" 70s CBGB's stalwart. This sometimes shows, with the film's imbalance towards the post-Dream Of Life years. The film’s biggest flaw is that he never asks her any questions. There’s a scene where she’s jamming and singing and joking with the legend that is playwright/actor Sam Shepard. They’re both looking their age, and are happily resigned to it. A Patti Smith fan will feel a rush of something momentous. This is a historic reunion. They're talking about the Chelsea Hotel. Ask them what they recall about writing the play Cowboy Mouth, one of the most perceptive plays about the rock star myth, when they were young together and an item! Go on! But no. Sebring is in awe, both rightly and wrongly.

On the plus side, and it’s a sizeable one, Sebring never does the predictable. He certainly has his own aesthetic, and believes in it. This dream-like (apologies, but it’s the most apposite word) documentary drifts back and forth across eleven years of footage, or eleven years of Sebring bringing a 16mm camera along whenever he can afford to. It edits from Smith backstage to Smith onstage (incendiary, would that there were more); from Smith introducing us to her folks (delightfully 'normal') to Smith being a tourist and thinking deep thoughts aloud about civilisation and politics and war and peace and travel and time. She paints, and talks about De Kooning and Pollock; she shows us where she keeps Robert Mapplethorpe’s remains; she reveres Burroughs and Shelley; there are cameos by Michael Stipe and Bono and Flea and Jesse Jackson; all tied together by a through-line of her sitting in her bedroom and speaking of her memories, as intimately as could be hoped, and with more humour than you’d imagine.

"Life is not some vertical or horizontal line", she offers. "You have your own internal world and it’s not neat." The film - a fuzzy, hazy, monochromatic stoned mumble - follows this principle and works, by accident or design. (Though more of that live footage, with Smith aflame and spitting and testifying, would have been welcome.) This “punk/poet/prophet”, a kind, gentle, slow-moving, quick-thinking, 62-year-old woman, is self-possessed, charismatic and makes for a great atypical subject. Patti Smith: Dream of Life is a valid, respectable testament and portrait, which may possibly convey her magnetism to a fresh generation. You’ll come out vowing to eschew quick fixes, turn off the TV, decline the offer to go to the pub, hungry to read more books and devour more art.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life is in cinemas on the 5th of December.

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