Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Written by Jesse Sposato
You know when you watch an awesome trailer for a movie, and then you go and see it and you feel like, weird, the coming attractions showed all the good parts of the movie. And then you feel like, no, they were even better than the movie itself. Well, Patti Smith: Dream of Life is kind of like that. In the coming attractions, epic things are happening; you feel like you’re getting just a taste, a tiny glimpse of the amazing scenes you’ll get a whole lot more of later—like Patti chatting up her parents about the well-known song, “Gloria,” and reminiscing about how Bob Dylan once tuned her guitar. (He said, “Hey, nice guitar.”) But the thing is, you are sort of wrong.
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You know when you watch an awesome trailer for a movie, and then you go and see it and you feel like, weird, the coming attractions showed all the good parts of the movie. And then you feel like, no, they were even better than the movie itself. Well, Patti Smith: Dream of Life is kind of like that. In the coming attractions, epic things are happening; you feel like you’re getting just a taste, a tiny glimpse of the amazing scenes you’ll get a whole lot more of later—like Patti chatting up her parents about the well-known song, “Gloria,” and reminiscing about how Bob Dylan once tuned her guitar. (He said, “Hey, nice guitar.”) But the thing is, you are sort of wrong.

The movie claims to be “an intimate portrait of a woman captured over time,” and it is, “over time” being an understatement. This film was recorded over ten years! So long that at one point Patti even declares she is going to stay in the corner of her bedroom for the rest of the movie to protest.

While watching the film, I guess the biggest question I had was this: how intimate do we really have to get in order to appreciate a rock legend? I mean, yes Patti Smith is a person too. It’s nice to see her as a mother—she is a mom who doesn’t use bleach. And playing with her son Jackson reminds her of what it was like to play with her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith—and it is pretty adorable to watch her and Sam Shepard play guitar together and, even better, bond over peeing in bottles in weird places. But there is also a line to draw, and it has nothing to do with things getting too personal; it’s more like things getting too boring.
 
I liked watching old clips of Patti in the ‘70s. Patti being young and amazing and talking about how the suburbs in New Jersey, where she grew up, are void of any interesting challenges. Her reciting a poem of her love for New York was pretty special too. These were real highlights.

But I don’t need to watch Patti go through her trunk’s worth of memories and pull out her favorite homemade dress from when she was a little girl. Or watch as she visits her parents and wonders who planted the trees at their house…could it have been her daddy, the whole family? And then, my very favorite, Patti goes to graveyards, lots of them: William Blake, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Percy Shelley. It’s like the goth-punk version of See Jane Run. (The sequel: What will Patti Smith eat for breakfast? With new bonus section: How does Patti brush her teeth?)

Though it’s not to say that the movie has no merit. Despite complaints, Dream of Life still managed to get me teary-eyed as I felt the electrical power of inspiration watching footage of Patti performing on stage. I mean, it’s Patti Smith. Even if you mess it up, you can’t really mess it up. And the thing is, she stills knows how to kick it, like for real. Patti is still getting angry on stage like a teenager and throwing all her angst into her political speeches in order to ensue riots and enthusiasm in a crowd…not to mention that her voice sounds as beautiful as ever.

On top of that, she is a surprisingly blissful person. (I only say “surprisingly” because how many “rock and roll icons” are really blissful anyway?) She always seems pretty happy and gives forth positive energy no matter what the situation. She speaks fondly of her memories of her punk days, and of her life with Fred “Sonic” Smith, whom she clearly adored in a way you always hope someone adores you! So these were real treats as well.

But still, if I could just straight up give advice on this one, I would say, see the film, but then as soon as you leave, make sure to stop off at your nearest record store and pick up Horses, Easter, or both and play them a bunch. Listening to Patti's words, voice, and instrumentation creates a better and deeper understanding of her than maybe any other kind of insight, film or otherwise, can.

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