Strange Messengers

Patti Smith. (Photo: Steven Sebring)

IN ANY GIVEN ROOM of people, punk icon Patti Smith is probably the most charismatic by a long shot. Steven Sebring, the director of Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008), has that much figured out. To its advantage, Sebring’s homage to the legendary singer, poet, and all-around downtown figure—filmed with much input from Smith herself—has none of the talking heads of a typical rock documentary. It features neither cute toddler photos showing early musical proclivities nor the requisite play-by-play of a band’s lineup and history of managers. Chronology is scrapped. The film’s only sense of order emerges from thematic recurrences: In the most memorable of these, Smith sits in an armchair in one corner of her room, doing a show-and-tell with meaningful objects she’s collected over the years (including a guitar once tuned by Bob Dylan).

The film has its powerful moments—and not just the expectedly electrifying footage of Smith in performance. In one scene, the singer holds an urn that contains the ashes of her long-dead friend Robert Mapplethorpe. She unscrews the vial and pours some of the ashes into her palm, but only after much fumbling. Smith’s technical problems with the urn lend the scene an aura of candor, and the whole gesture has the subversive intimacy and symbolism of some good performance art. In comparison, visits to the graves of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley are heavy-handed, though fans of Smith surely appreciate—or at least, by now, expect—the defiantly ambitious reach of her references.

Throughout, there’s a sense that Sebring and Smith shot spontaneously, trusting that a blueprint would develop in the editing of the material. After nearly two hours and several false endings, the film is more a trove for her most devoted fans than an attempt to win any new ones. When Smith mentions that she and Sebring have been working on the project for ten years, it comes as no surprise. It seems likely that the filmmakers simply grew attached to too many shoeboxes of ephemera.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life plays at Film Forum in New York August 6–19.