Dream of Life
, the 2008 documentary about Patti Smith, opens with Smith's own narration of the many loved ones she's outlived over the years. Among those names are her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith; her brother Todd; and controversial photographer and close friend Robert Mapplethorpe
Smith's close friendship with Mapplethorpe started in the late 1960s when the two were living in the Chelsea Hotel and ended in 1989 when he died of AIDS. In January, Smith, an accomplished poet as well as musician, published a memoir about the friendship, Just Kids
. She'll be in Houston April 19 to read from her book as part of Voices Breaking Boundaries' Cultural Narrative program
The film came about after director Steven Sebring photographed Smith for Spin
magazine in 1996. The two became friends, and shortly after Sebring began filming her for a documentary. And he kept filming her - for 11 years. Dream of Life
is the result of that extensive collection of film.
Artistically shot, in both black and white and color, the film is an intimate look at Smith's life after her husband died, when she packed up her son and daughter and moved from New Jersey back to New York City. "I felt safe in Jersey," she says. "But I feel inspired in New York City."
For a casual Smith fan, the film gives a lot of perspective into her creative process. Smith name-drops her artistic heroes throughout the film - Bob Dylan, William Blake, Walt Whitman, the Beat Poets. A particularly heart-wrenching moment comes during the 1997 funeral of Allen Ginsberg, where Smith breaks down halfway through a poem-elegy. Ginsberg was one of many friends who comforted Smith after her husband died.
In one early scene, Smith is tooling around on a Depression-era Gibson. She says she first learned to play guitar - just five basic chords - from a Dylan songbook. While she was living in the Chelsea the first time she'd ask other Chelsea-dwelling musicians if they wanted to see her vintage guitar. They'd come to her apartment, play the instrument, and that's how she'd get the strings in tune -- she didn't know how to tune it herself.
The movie is filled with off-the-cuff and live performances of Smith and perennial band member Lenny Kaye. One of the most remarkable things is seeing her interactions with her family. Her son Jackson, born in 1982, and her daughter Jesse, born in 1987, practically grow up on film. And her parents, whom she visits in their quaint New Jersey home - their kitchen is decorated in Holstein print - make her seem as normal as blueberry pie. At one point she even rolls her eyes at them.
Halfway through the film there's a scene where Smith is talking to friends about trying to emulate the way Bob Dylan in the archetypal music documentary Don't Look Back
, and it's the perfect accidental comparison. Sebring has re-imagined D.A. Pennebaker's film, with an enigmatic female protagonist. But while Don't Look Back
opened more questions about its hero, Dream of Life
solves some of the mystery of Smith.
Dream of Life is available on DVD at Amazon.com.