Patti Smith: Dream of Life—It’s Not Patti’s Fault


If Patti Smith’s narration to Dream of Life was simplified into a stanza, it might go something like this: As long as I can remember I sought to be free/Bob Dylan once tuned this guitar for me/My mission is to give people my energy/Fred, Jesse, and Jackson are my family tree/New generations, rise up, rise up, take to the streets/Me and Flea talking about pee. Her much more long-winded monologues are just as randomly assembled in the actual documentary, 109 mostly black-and-white minutes of punk’s wet nurse floating through the modern world while endlessly ruminating on mortality, art, and the occasional bodily function. Problem is, there’s nary a hint of context, even with biographic essentials: When Patti sprinkles the ashes of “Robert” onto her palm, we’re momentarily left to guess that’s Mapplethorpe; when she and erstwhile paramour Sam Shepard are acoustically jamming and their respective tattoos come up, the playwright muses, “That was a weird night at the Chelsea.” More, please? Blame first-time director Steven Sebring, the fashion photographer whom the “very private” Patti entrusted to film her for 11 years, and who says in regards to Dream of Life: “I want to turn people on to Patti Smith.” If the resulting movie had been comprehensible to anyone besides those who have an armpit-hair fetish thanks to Easter, he might’ve stood a chance.