My wife jokes that I’m pretentious for my love of what she calls “tiny awards” on the covers of movies—little laurel leaf-bound seals of freshness from the art film festival circuit. It’s true, I nearly always bite when unknown films come to me preapproved. Were I to encounter the cover of the 2008 Patti Smith documentary Dream of Life I should be forced to watch it even if were I totally ignorant of Patti Smith. It won several tiny awards—including a Sundance Prize for best cinematography, a well-deserved honor that shows director Steven Sebring’s high regard for his subject. Any worthwhile film about Smith—singer, writer, poet, artist—must privilege the visual as well as the musical and literary. Smith’s world has always been one of high contrast and dangerous prescience, like the work of her childhood friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she moved to the Chelsea Hotel in 1969 and who took the iconic photo on the cover of her first album, Horses. Her and Mapplethorpe’s storied partnership helped both take New York City by storm. As a young Smith says above, “New York is the thing that seduced me; New York is the thing that formed me; New York is the thing that deformed me.”
Born in Chicago—“mainline of America” she calls it—Smith’s family moved across the Midwest to rural New Jersey. Her work also bespeaks of an experience of Eastern Migration, with nostalgic traces of longing for open spaces. The film opens with a galloping herd of horses, nodding to Smith’s 1975 debut, a blast of punk poetry that still sounds menacing and raw. But the documentary’s title comes from a 1988 record that marked a sort of cesura for Smith, as one period of her life ended and another waited to begin. Produced by her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith (formerly of the MC5), whom she met in 1976, it’s an album of “polished love songs, lullabies, and political statements” and it’s a very grown-up record, the sometimes adult contemporary sound saved from blandness by Smith’s compelling lyricism and beautiful voice.
Fred “Sonic” Smith fell ill not long after the album, and Patti retired, more or less, from music. She returned to performing and recording after her husband’s death in 1994, after the loss also of her brother and Mapplethorpe. Always an intensely emotional writer and performer, her later period is marked by memorials and meditations on loss—not unusual for an older poet and longtime survivor of rock and roll, as well as the literary and art worlds. All of Smith’s many changes occur before us above as she remembers and reflects in her poet’s voice over that Sundance-winning cinematography. It’s hard to imagine another document—save her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids—doing more justice to Smith’s vision than Dream of Life.