Steven Sebring’s “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” is a dream of a movie; gauzy, free-associative and reverberant. Shot over 11 years by a commercial photographer who befriended the poet, rock star, activist and “godmother of punk” in the mid-'90s, when Smith returned to New York following the death of her husband, it drifts and floats between footage of her as a young woman in the ‘60s and ‘70s and rambling home-movie-like footage of her life today.
Of course, Smith’s home movies happen to include moments like an impromptu jam session with Sam Shepherd and travels to Tokyo, London, Rome, Israel and Washington, where she attends a giant antiwar rally. But they’re perhaps more remarkable as an archive of a life and an artistic era only recently bygone.
Shot on 16 millimeter, mostly in black and white, “Dream of Life” captures an analog world full of vinyl records and battered paperbacks (Smith loves William Blake and Rimbaud), combat boots and large-format film cameras. Smith’s house in Detroit and her apartment in New York are temples to artistic disorder, with clothes, papers, books and objects strewn around at random and her kids’ (who literally grow up on screen) scrawls on the walls.
“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line,” she says. “You have your interior world, and it’s not neat -- therefore the importance and the beauty of music, sound, noise.”
The defining moments in Smith’s career -- her move to New York from rural New Jersey in 1967, her meeting Robert Mapplethorpe and moving into the Chelsea Hotel with him, her recording of “Horses” in 1975, and her departure for Detroit in 1979 -- are gotten out of the way quickly, covered in a brief voice-over at the start of the film. It’s as though Smith and Sebring wanted to hurry past the milestones in her biography to focus instead on the moments that make up her life. At one point, Smith turns to Sebring and says she hates it when people ask her how it feels to be a rock icon.
“It makes me think of Mt. Rushmore,” she says.
But at times Smith does look like she was sculpted from marble, as when she stands in front of her husband’s grave. Impossibly long and angular, with a brutally beautiful face, she represents something that’s been rare in the popular culture in the past decade: an artist with a voice and a vision. In this respect, there’s a note of mourning in this otherwise celebratory film -- for punk rock, for New York, for reality, for a time when popular music was animated by something other than money.
“Patti Smith: Dream of Life.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. In selected theaters.