Patti Smith Documentary Dream of Life Beautifully Captures the Author’s Life and Long Career (2008)

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.

This comes to us via BrainPicking’s Maria Popo­va, who points us toward a cof­fee-table book of pho­tographs from the film. The select­ed few she fea­tures are stun­ning indeed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith Reads Her Final Words to Her Dear Friend Robert Map­plethor­pe

1976 Film Blank Gen­er­a­tion Doc­u­ments CBGB Scene with Pat­ti Smith, The Ramones, Talk­ing Heads, Blondie & More

Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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