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Case Number 15429: Small Claims Court

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Patti Smith: Dream Of Life

Palm Pictures // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // January 13th, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker is the one crashing his head against the locker and laughing hysterically.

The Charge

New York is the thing that seduced me
New York is the thing that formed me
New York is the thing that deformed me
New York is the thing that perverted me
New York is the thing that converted me
New York's the thing I love, too.
That's my little prayer for New York.

"It's always funny when people ask me about that—How does it feel to be a rock icon? When they say that, I always think of Mt. Rushmore."

The Case

If you were writing a biographical essay on Patti Smith for a school assignment, Steven Sebring's film, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, would be a maddening experience. The factoids are there, pretty much, but they all just run together. You could probably pull enough hard info to write an acceptable paper.

If you already know the factoids and are a Patti Smith fan, then Steven Sebring's film, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, is going to be a fun and rewarding experience. It's a free-form home movie, in the best possible way.

Sebring and his camera followed Smith around for 11 years, catching her in moments candid and not-so-candid. Over the course of 109 minutes, Smith muses and ruminates about her life and the people who've touched it. We get Sebring's footage—begun shortly after Smith's husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, died in 1994—as well as archival footage, some of it shot by Smith's friend, Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith came to New York City in the mid-'60s. She was a poet and a musician, and she became part of a scene that included Mapplethorpe and playwright Sam Shepard. She was in the original production of Shepard's Cowboy Mouth. She was among the first wave of performers at CBGBs, the ones like Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine and the Ramones who gave that place its rep. In 1975, she released Horses, a raw and wrenching masterpiece marrying post-Beat Poetry and pure rock and roll that's lost none of its considerable power.

After three more albums, Smith married Sonic Smith in 1980 and moved to Michigan. She "dropped out" to raise her children and live with her husband, putting out one album, Dream of Life, in 1988. Fred died of a heart attack late in 1994, and her brother died a few months later.

It was in the wake of these losses that Smith began being filmed by Sebring. In time, she embarked on something of a comeback, touring again, playing with Bob Dylan, Lenny Kaye, Tom Verlaine, and others she knew from "the old days." But this is not a concert film. While we do get performance snippets, most of Dream of Life is Smith talking, rambling, sharing her thoughts and her observations, and her memories.

There's a moving and fascinating off the cuff tribute to William Burroughs and lots of talk of her friend Alan Ginsberg; she visits graves, her husband and William Blake and Shelley and Rimbaud, and she reflects at all of them; there's concert footage of "Horses" and "Gloria" and "My Generation" and "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," and it's impossible to believe that this potent and angry and vital presence is a mother of two in her 50s who didn't perform for more than a decade; she visits her parents, hangs out with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and in a lovely and poignant moment, jams with old friend Sam Shepard, these two people who were part of a movement, of a generation, that hasn't aged so much as it's grown.

The film's structure is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Patti Smith would never have leant herself to a traditional bio-doc. Splayed out, dissected, chronologized, this was not the way to tell the story of the woman whose own biography includes the kind of passion most people can't keep after 17: "I'm gonna be somebody/I'm getting gonna get on that train/Go to New York City/I'm gonna be so big, I'm gonna be a big star and I will never return/Never return, no, never return, to burn at this piss factory/And I will travel light, oh, watch me now."

Neither does Smith's story lend itself to the typically smug backstage-concert-style film. Smith never had the pretensions of a Dylan or the Stones. There was no Don't Look Back to be had here, and nothing as scandalous ever as Cocksucker Blues. Smith's early years may have included some hard times and haze, but her middle years were all about family and kids.

No, this collage, this crazy-quilt of words, music, and image, it fits. It works perfectly for Smith, though not always so well for Sebring.

One of the downsides of Dream of Life is Sebring's self-conscious artiness. Much of the film is in an artificially moody black and white with lots of grain, looking a bit like older rock docs like Don't Look Back or Gimme Shelter. Knowing that this look has been imposed on the film makes it occasionally annoying, though it doesn't detract from Smith. As such, the image is fine for what it is, and at times—when Sebring just shoots the damn thing—it looks very nice. Sebring catches not only Smith's stark and simple beauty, but the harsh beauty of her world, as well. There are no subtitles, which is unfortunate, as here and there, Smith's words get lost.

Also, a little context would have been nice. It's not going to destroy the project's artistic integrity to throw some words on the screen letting us know where we are and who these people are. Give us a little background on the concert venues, let us know that that's Jackson Smith up there, or that this is Sam Shepard or Philip Glass, or whoever. It's frustrating trying to recognize people, and it takes away from the experience of the film.

We get a few good extras. There are some nice deleted scenes that are worth watching; there's a sense that with 11 years of shooting, there's probably enough material to make a dozen films, so the scenes that were deleted were merely giving way to something the director deemed more important. There's also a brief and entertaining interview with Jackson Smith (who shows off his tattoos of both his parents), particularly interesting because we'd seen him as a child during the film; "16min," which is a montage of raw footage; and a trailer.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life is a fan's movie, Advanced Patti Smith, not the 101. If you are not familiar with Smith's work, pick up Horses or Easter or Radio Ethiopia first and spend a couple of years listening to them before venturing into this film. If, on the other hand, you are one of the tens of thousands who found yourself scarred and empowered as a teen or an adult listening to "Land" or "Redondo Beach" or "Pissin in a River" or "Space Monkey" or "Because the Night" or "Frederick" or "Piss Factory" or whatever else you might have heard, then pick this up immediately.

Not guilty in the sea of possibilities.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Palm Pictures
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Biographical
• Concerts and Musicals
• Documentary
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Interview
• Raw Footage
• Trailer

Accomplices

• IMDb
• Official Site








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