Part of the fascination in Steven Sebring’s affectionate documentary portrait Patti Smith: Dream of Life comes from the way it strives to be as elusive as its subject. As one would expect from a filmmaker who is first and foremost a high-end fashion and pop photographer, Sebring’s film is full of wonderfully moody black and white shots, superbly composed and often at once hauntingly beautiful and desperately sad. Essential to the film’s dark charm, however, is the melody of Patti Smith’s own language: in slow, hypnotically gentle, yet radiantly emphatic voice-over she briefly compiles key biographical data as well as momentous events and significant encounters that shaped her life, her narration underpinned by a vigorous force that makes every word sound like it is carved in stone. Applied to a different persona, Sebring’s approach might seem disturbingly self-indulgent, but for the most part it suits this portrait perfectly. The enormously influential punk rock poet, her music and poetry, and the times in which she flourished are indeed best served by a cinematic style that remains determinedly impressionistic.
Yet, Dream of Life is undoubtedly driven by the need to make sense of the enigmatic and overpowering figure at its heart. Sebring met Patti Smith in late 1995, one year after the deaths of her husband, the guitarist Fred Smith, and her only brother Todd, when she decided to return to the stage after an absence of 16 years. He followed her with his camera in utter devotion for over a decade, shooting Smith at home or while touring around the world, visiting the graves of the poets she reveres from Alan Ginsberg to William Blake and Shelley, or checking in at her parents’ house in Deptford, New Jersey. Interwoven with these glimpses of her past and present life, there is a recurring, essential image, in which Smith is sitting in a white, sparsely furnished room amidst her greatest personal treasures, at one point showing off her favourite childhood dress before picking up her guitar and giving away secrets like her crush on the late author William S Burroughs.
Clearly a labour of love, Dream of Life is a tremendously visceral composite whose strength lies in letting the look, the sound and the mystique of Patti Smith speak for themselves. Though Sebring is no doubt guilty of glamorising his subject and often meanders instead of providing deeper insight or even just plain facts, he edits his film in much the same wildly emotional, attentive yet open-ended way Smith performs. Although there is no denying that mild self-complacence makes this an imperfect film, it remains in the mind as a slow-paced, beautifully shot and softly nostalgic documentary, a stylised capsule of an artist’s free-floating, intense and troubled life. It is an apt celebration of Smith’s extraordinary spirit and of her continued willingness to encounter the world with undying creative desire, even after being battered by fate time and again.