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Film Review: Patti Smith: Dream of Life

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Dream of Life, directed by Steven Sebring, is closer to being an art film than a biographical work, and thankfully it is nothing like a standard Hollywood biopic such as Ray or Walk the Line. There's nothing wrong with films like that, but Sebring's tribute to the once and future queen of punk so completely suits Patti Smith's personality and artistic vision, that his stylistic choices are irreproachable. Every frame of this movie reflects Patti's "will to be free."

The film is impressionistic and non-linear, kind of like Patti herself and definitely like her songs and poetry, and it begins appropriately with Patti's moving, plaintive voice singing one of her desperate pleas for sanity in our world. Although Patti's life has been fraught with pain and the death of loved ones, she continues to insist that "life is an adventure of our own design" and that it should be lived to its fullest.

Referring to her formative years in southern New Jersey, she says that there was "no chance to be destroyed or really be created there." New York City was for her the place full of life and adventure. In her early CBGB days on the Bowery, "William Burroughs was our guardian angel ... as we wandered through the debris of the 60s." For Patti, the artistic journey began with words -- the poets William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso -- and eventually the expressive inner force expanded into art and music. To emphasize this symbiosis, Sebring incorporates just the right music into every scene to complement the visuals.

Some of the film touches upon Patti's domestic life. We watch as she rummages through a few keepsakes and holds up a plain homemade garment. "I can see my whole childhood in this one little dress," she tells us. The interior and the immediate surroundings of her modest house reflect the childlike wonder she retains even as she approaches age 60. In one scene, as she rides in the back seat of a car, she points out the window at some clouds and says, "Look, there are whales in the sky."

Shortly after the death of her beloved husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, Allen Ginsberg wrote to Patti, offering his condolences and saying that she should continue to celebrate life. A short time later, after her brother passed away, Ginsberg's hopeful words must have still been with her because she said that after the initial shock of her loss, her heart "went from feeling like a cold black ember to a warm, really joyful, flame," and that all her brother's finest qualities entered her.

The concert footage that Sebring incorporates into his film is also impressionistic, as he opts for grainy footage with unusual angles and often weird sound quality. I found this refreshing in the present age of slick hi-def video and perfect but sterile audio. Rough-around-the-edges is what Patti is all about because it's the words and the poetry and the emotion and the intensity that matter. All else is window dressing, and you can put that where the sun don't shine.

Some of the scenes were shot during a rock and roll tour of England, which immediately reminded me of D.A. Pennebaker's influential Bob Dylan documentary, Dont Look Back,. A few seconds after this had run through my mind, Patti mentioned the Dylan film. And then, in keeping with her childlike demeanor, she said to her son, Jackson, who is a member of her band, "I feel like Elvis in Las Vegas or Dylan at Albert Hall." Most performers, one would think, would feel self-conscious or embarrassed expressing such a sentiment. So in a way it's endearing to hear it from Patti. In contrast to Dylan in Dont Look Back, not once in this movie does Patti come off as snotty, rude, pretentious (well, maybe a little now and then), or vindictive.

She named her oldest son after the artist Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist widely known for developing the "drip" method of painting. In a mini lecture on modern art, she tells us that Pollock took the drip coming out of the mouth of one of the terrified horses in Picasso's famous Guernica and with it "created a new vocabulary." It's this kind of unique, whimsical analysis that makes Patti so endearing.

A substantial part of the movie investigates Patti's political side, as she has been an activist for various political and environmental causes throughout her career. In the most memorable of these sections, we hear her telling a cheering audience, "We indict George W. Bush for befouling our country's name, for using the rhetoric of freedom to justify tyranny."

Steven Sebring's Dream of Life transmits the spirit of Patti Smith into our living rooms (it's been shown on PBS and is available on DVD), and that is a great spirit to be a part of. I hope it sticks with me for a long time to come. As Patti says toward the end of the movie, "We all have a voice; we have the responsibility to exercise it, to use it."