Patti Smith: Dream of Life, directed by Steven Sebring, has to count as a huge disappointment for anyone hoping to learn something about the poet-singer whose '70s albums (with portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe) have become so iconic they were referenced in Juno. Smith's work since then has been more infrequent, with a lengthy detour into motherhood and family life with her late husband Fred Sonic Smith. In recent years Smith has stood in sharp relief to the George W. Bush administration and seen her "People Have The Power" adopted as a progressive anthem. Dream of Life includes a denunciation of Bush and scenes of Smith speaking at an anti-Iraq War rally.
Steven Sebring took over a decade to make Dream of Life, and somewhere along the way must have fallen in love with his subject. A better word might be infatuation; the film suffers from a lack of directorial judgment about what facets of Smith's life are interesting, whether or not it's relevant what order things happen in, and how much information to pry from its subject. Smith provides voice-over narration, but aside from a moving account of her husband's singing an unreleased song she wrote about Jackie Kennedy there isn't much to what Smith adds to the film; it's a pretty dry recitation of already well-known biographical details. Would it have killed Sebring to provide some context as to when things were happening? Without some guideposts the film feels arbitrary; I can't explain the juxtaposition of Smith at an anitwar rally and a scene where she's reminiscing with Flea on a beach about awkward trips to the bathroom. Sebring's worst offense is making me like Smith less. If I didn't already know something about her life I'd think she was a dilettante who spent all her time taking photos and aimlessly going through all her old possessions. (Patti Smith doesn't have a digital camera either, it's a boxy thing that looks like a piece of old medical equipment)
Making a film that depicts the creative process is notoriously hard work, but couldn't we have had some perspective on Smith's influence on other artists or the birth of one of her better known songs? Smith's old buddy Sam Shepard shows up to play guitar and pal around, and the sheer inconsequence of the scene is an example of everything that's wrong with Dream of Life. Shepard's the perfect figure provide some detail, some color, some grounding, and add to paint a picture of Smith the woman as opposed to the Icon. Instead we get idle chitchat. Let Smith's genius remain sui generis, since Patti Smith: Dream of Life adds nothing to our understanding of its subject.