Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Ostensibly a documentary about the iconic punk-poet singer, Steven Sebring’s film is really more of a video scrapbook, interspersing snippets of live performances with biographical reminisces from Patti Smith and low-key vignettes. Some might suggest this documentary is rambling and self-indulgent at times, but so what? It’s also filled with moments of offhand beauty and bolstered by undeniable charisma, not unlike a performance from Smith herself. If the film begins to take on the same strengths and weaknesses of its subject, I consider that a sign of its effectiveness as a portrait.

The more the film conforms to the peculiarities of Smith's personality, the more it becomes a welcome alternative to the usual banalities of the rock documentary. The starfucking clichés of the genre are neglected for the warm domesticity of Smith showing us her mother’s collection of porcelain cows. Sure, it would have been nice to have a bit more live footage (Smith remains an entrancing performer even after all of these years), but not at the cost of the cows. The fact that Sebring is willing to take such detours leads to more compelling results than the typical rock-doc strategy of letting famous people wax bland about the subject (try the relatively recent Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten for a particularly sad example of a film that succumbs to this vile impulse by letting the likes of Bono and John Cusack pointlessly gush about the Clash). Even when Thom Yorke and Michael Stipe show up backstage at one of Smith's concerts, the film feels no need to bother them for a quote. Of course, this wouldn’t be a rock doc without Flea in it—I swear, he seems to be in every single one of these things—but his presence is confined to trading stories with Smith about urinating in bottles while on the road. He has a good story, but hers is better.

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