Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith

Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith

Patti Smith: Dream of Life, directed and mostly shot by Steven Sebring, is an elegantly impressionistic portrait of the punk godhead, Patti Smith, which was created over a heroic period of 11-years. The film has barely begun before Patti has offered forth a life’s worth of headline news, a strategy that allows Mr. Sebring and Ms. Smith, who is as much a collaborator as a subject, to fill the next 100 or so minutes with fragmented beauty and song.

For the most part, the film is a song of life, alternately joyous and elegiac, warm and vibrantly present, a mosaic of moods and moments from one woman’s richly lived time on earth. Against the odds and other punk rockers’ self-destructive tendencies, Ms. Smith didn’t die young or succumb to the usual rock clichés.

Patti Smith: The Early Years

Patti Smith was born in Chicago in 1948 and grew up in Woodbury, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, Patti did a brief stint as a factory worker, which convinced her to move to New York City to pursue a life in the arts. Soon after her arrival, she connected with the young photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met while working at a book store. This was a close friendship that she maintained until his death in 1989. In 1969 she went to Paris with her sister and started doing performance art. When Smith returned to New York City, she lived in the Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe, and they began frequenting the then fashionable Max’s Kansas City and CBGB nightclubs.

She helped put New York’s punk-rock landmark CBGB on the map. She organized The Patti Smith Group and in 1975 released her debut album, Horses, to critical acclaim. Produced by John Cale, the album was described as an original mixture of exhortatory rock & roll, Smith’s poetry, vocal mannerisms inspired by Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, and the band’s energetically rudimentary playing. In 1976, Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas oversaw the Patti Smith Group’s second album, Radio Ethiopia, and the result was a more bombastic guitar-heavy record, tempered by the title cut, the height of Smith’s improvised free rock.

Grief and Mourning

After an almost nine-year hiatus, Smith returned to recording with the 1988 album Dream of Life, the work of a more mellow, but still rebellious songwriter. Smith’s comeback album was co-produced by her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, with songs that included her call-to-arms, People Have the Power.

Patti Smith: People Have the Power

In 1994, her husband died of a heart attack at age 45. A month later, her younger brother (and former road manager), Todd, also died of a heart attack. Her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe had already died of AIDS in 1989. Determined to carry on as a tribute to the encouragement her husband and brother had shown her before their passing, Smith performed a string of opening dates with Bob Dylan in late 1995 and issued the intensely personal Gone Again in 1996. The album offered a potent mix of songs about mourning and rebirth, reflecting Smith’s belief that the beauty of life survives death.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

But another eight years would pass before her second artistic comeback, marked by a trio of acclaimed albums released in quick succession, which found her fighting her way out of a period of intense personal grief stemming from the loss of several of the most important people in her life. The documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith (Part 1)

Dream of Life: An Elegantly Impressionistic Portrait of Patti Smith (Part 1)

Behind the Lens: Filmmaker Steven Sebring and Patti Smith (PBS Documentary)

Read more about Dream of Life in the New York Times here.

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