- Still vital: Patti Smith
Patti Smith is very much alive; the incantatory rocker and poet reportedly lit up the stage pretty well, for instance, in a show here last year. But Steven Sebring's beautiful new documentary about her is, both wittingly and poignantly, immersed in the contemplation of death.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life was shot over the course of 10 eventful years in her latter-day career, during which she raised two kids and ended a 16-year leave from live performance. Her voiceover opens with her own bare biographical recitation -- birthplace; relocation to New York; 1975's breakthrough first album, Horses -- but that's about the only chronology we get. Instead, Sebring offers an impressionistic portrait of an artist who's emphatically kept living and creating even as almost everyone who matters to her has (it seems) died, often too young.
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, her first real friend after the 20-year-old Smith moved to New York in the 1960s. Inspirations like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Her younger brother. There are also long-dead influences Blake and Rimbaud, whose graves she visits.
Other didn't die too young, but died all the same, like William Burroughs, Smith's artistic mentor (and unrequited crush) during her CBGB days. Her parents (Patti Smith has parents?) cameo in Smith's charming visit to her childhood home, in rural New Jersey, but this film is dedicated to their memory.
Mostly, though, Dream of Life memorializes Fred "Sonic" Smith, the former MC5 guitarist Smith married in 1980. Fred Smith died in 1994, at 45 (around the same time as both Patti Smith's brother, and keyboardist Richard Sohl).
In intimate passages of Dream of Life, Sebring captures Patti Smith -- more collaborator than subject, it often appears -- reflecting on the good that can come of loss. Her philosophy is powerfully referenced in the film's title (also the title of the 1988 album on which Smith collaborated with her husband). The phrase comes from "Adonais," Shelley's famous elegy for Keats, in which the poet imagines that to die is to waken from the dream of life.
If this is all affecting, none of it's really sad. Patti Smith is too much in the world for that. Through Sebring's artful, sometimes black-and-white cinematography, we see the 61-year-old mostly as she is today, skinny, seamed and raw, an activist as well as a live-wire musician, passionately denouncing George W. Bush, playing guitars with old friend Sam Shepard, on tour with Michael Stipe and Tom Verlaine, belting out "Horses."
Often in Dream of Life, we can't tell when or where we are -- somewhere in the world, anytime in that 10-year stretch. That's properly disorienting. It's worth noting that Smith still tours and records with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, both members of her original band, and living symbols that life, no matter what, goes on.
Starts Fri., Nov. 28. Harris