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.
No subtitles are offered on this release.