Don't go expecting a concert doc or comprehensive biopic from Patti Smith: Dream of Life. This isn't that. There are a few bits and pieces that fall into those categories here, but not enough of either to satisfy if that's what you've looking for.
Eleven years in the making, this is the debut film from fashion photographer Steven Sebring. Smith and Sebring met when she sought him out to photograph her for a spread in Spin Magazine in 1995. He came to her home in Detroit that fall for the shoot. They fell in together easily. She invited him to a New York gig a couple weeks later. He then accompanied her off and on thereafter shooting whatever struck his fancy for a project then undetermined which has, these many years later, culminated in a documentary, book, and art installation.
This doc is thoroughly imbued with Sebring's artistic sensibilities. He directed, wrote, photographed and handled the sound. Shot on 16mm, mostly black and white, Patti Smith: Dream of Life is all hazy grain, haphazard focus and unconventional cinematography. From the first frame of film, the dreamy look serves the impressionist structure giving fair warning that this is not a straight-ahead, balls-out, high-def rock doc.
Like reading her own obit, Smith summarizes her life in a quick voiceover at the film's beginning. That debt paid, she and Sebring are off on a trip that crosses back and forth between continents and years. Don't bother trying to figure out whether the footage in Japan came before or after the footage in Paris, Sebring doesn't provide a roadmap and it doesn't matter anyway.
The larger narrative of these eleven years is Smith getting on with life. Now 63, she's outlived many of those that mattered most to her: husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, brother and parents, bandmate Richard Sohl, and friends Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, William Burroughs, and others. Yet, Smith is unbowed.
Sebring shows us Smith visiting graves of friends and heroes, handling the cremated remains of Mapplethorpe, and reflecting on bygone loves, but we never see her break down or show self-pity. Sebring aptly borrows the title of Smith's 1988 album for his documentary, itself borrowed from Shelley's elegy to Keats: "Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep-- He hath awakened from the dream of life."
Contrary to her stage persona and her reputation, Patti Smith is nothing but kind, friendly, playful, and open before Sebring's camera. We see her dote on her children, share stories (sometimes self-deprecating) about her devotions and quirks, and advocate against the war in Iraq.
The DVD release of Patti Smith: Dream of Life from Palm Pictures is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for widescreen. The grainy color and black and white 16mm footage is frequently soft, but this appears to be by design. The only problems likely attributable to the transfer are occasional aliasing and minor compression errors.
This release includes Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 options. Both are adequate. The rear speakers don't get much of a workout, except on some concert audio recorded by others, but the overall sound design is in keeping with the look and feel of the film.
No subtitles are offered on this release.
Though unfortunately there's no commentary track, Sebring provides 23 minutes of deleted scenes, another 16-minute montage of material, a nine-minute interview with Patti's son Jackson, and the theatrical trailer. Also included from Palm Pictures is a trailer for the Roky Erickson biopic from filmmaker Keven McAlester, You're Gonna Miss Me (2005).
If you don't come already knowing who Patti Smith is, what she's done, and why she matters don't expect to learn it here, but if you're already a fan, Steven Sebring's impressionistic Patti Smith: Dream of Life is an enjoyable, intimate exploration of the woman behind the tough-as-nails stage persona.