I noticed my own heart beating, breath passing through my nostrils,
My feet walking, eyes seeing.
—Allen Ginsberg, “On the Cremation of Chögyam Thungpa Vidyadhara”
I was lost, and the cost,
and the cost didn’t matter to me.
I was lost, and the cost
was to be outside society.
—Patti Smith, “Rock and Roll Nigger”
“I was born in Chicago, mainline of America, in the center of a blizzard after World War II.” Biographical fact, yes, but so elliptical and so visceral in its phrasing, Patti Smith’s birth here links culture, history, and weather—like she’s some fantastic force come to earth to surprise us all. This notion is reinforced throughout Patti Smith: Dream of Life, a film and art installation and photography book 11 years in the making. Now playing at New York’s Film Forum, Steven Sebring’s documentary opens with the artist’s self-narration—her siblings’ arrivals, the family’s move to the City of Brotherly Love—over images of running, red-lit horses (of course), followed by footage from a train window, apartment buildings and train tracks and traffic. “Life is an adventure of our own design,” she says, “intersected by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents.”
Dream of Life follows her adventure, specifically after her career started again. She had already lived in New York, worked and lived with Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepard, and recorded seminal punk rock albums in 1974 and ‘75,) when she met Fred Sonic Smith. In 1979, they moved to Detroit, his “beloved Detroit,” where they began raising their two children, Jackson and Jesse. It was only when Fred and then her brother Todd died suddenly, that Smith even considered returning to a public life. To support her family and encouraged by Allen Ginsberg (“Let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life’s celebration), in 1995 she brought her children back east and began performing on stage again. “Shaking off the performance dust,” she says, “and saying hello to the road.”
As Smith narrates this decision, the movie shows her emerging from a car pulling an Airstreamer, hardly your average camper. Like much of the footage assembled for the film—and again, she and Sebring collaborated on the project for a decade—this image is at once oddly ceremonial, appositely punk, and utterly self-knowing. The film is suffused with Smith’s sense of irony, outrage, and loss, and it is shaped according to her changing sense of self, her dedication to her kids, her constant political commitments. Smith frames her story as an junction of experiences: “Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line,” Smith observes. “You have your own interior world and it’s not neat, therefore the importance and beauty of music, sound, noise, when you go outside and walk on the street.”
These worlds exist across space and time. When she revisits Detroit, photos show Smith immersed in her young family (pregnant, leaning into Fred, entranced by a sleeping infant), Sebring’s camera takes you through the old house, revealing dishes in a sink, children’s handprints on otherwise empty walls, a home abandoned now but dense with memories. As Smith makes her way down a stairwell or gazes out windows, the soundtrack offers “The Jackson Song”: “When day is done and little dreamers spin, / First take my hand, now let it go.”
Loss is a persistent theme in the film, considered in various dimensions. She visits Blake’s and Gregory Corso’s graves (“‘Remember you are mortal,’ said Gregory, ‘but poetry is not’”), compares photos of Baghdad’s Golden Dome Mosque, before and after the U.S. invasion (“What are we doing in Iraq?”), and describes her own “alteration” since her brother’s death: “My heart went from feeling like a cold black ember to a warm really joyful flame,” she says, “All his finest qualities somehow entered me as a human being.”
As the camera follows Smith and her band on the road (including shows in Tokyo, London, Paris, and Atlanta), it also returns again and again to the city that seduced her. Remembering her early days in New York, she touches on people (William Burroughs, “our guardian angel”) and places (CBGB), the film illustrating briefly as she skips from one recollection to another. “New York,” a decades-younger Smith recites, “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… It’s my little prayer for New York.” The city is here less a place than a point of perpetual departure. And the film, despite Smith’s own date-pocked narration, is hardly chronological, but rather, a lyrical construction of moments—black and white or color, crisp or grainy, posed or apparently improvised—pieces and connections rather than conclusions.
This shifting portrait assumes viewers’ assumptions and filters, doesn’t impose a reading. Rather, it slinks and shimmies, stops and starts, provokes and seduces. Just so, Smith comes in and out of frame, each actual place a repository and occasion. When she enters her “corner,” a room in the Chelsea Hotel to which the film returns more than once, the image focuses on black boots first, then tips up to show the camera hanging from her neck. Pans of the room show accumulating memories: photos (Ralph Nader, for whom she campaigned in 2000), wooden clogs, books (Walt Whitman, Mickey Spillane, William Blake, Rimbaud), and her instruments. She found in rock and roll, she says, a means to express herself, “albeit somewhat awkwardly.”
Modest and even shy offstage, Smith is famously explosive on it. The film’s concert footage is occasionally overlaid with alternate soundtracks (Smith reading poems), but always makes clears her uncanny charisma. “My mission,” Smith says, “is to communicate, to wake people up, to give them my energy and to suck theirs.” Just so, her recent performances include calls to action against the current U.S. administration. In Philadelphia, she reads from the Declaration of Independence (“a long train of abuses”) in order to “indict George W. Bush for befouling our country’s name.” On the DC Mall, she sings “Radio Baghdad,” from her 2004 CD Trampin’ (“Suffer not the paralysis of your neighbor, / Suffer not, but extend your hand”), as the film shows an anti-war collage.
Smith’s journeys are by turns intimate and indistinct, comic (a bit with Flea on a beach, comparing stories of pissing into bottles) and spiritual (she walks with Jesse through Central Park as she remembers the song “She Walked Home,” which she wrote but never recorded because, she says, “Somehow Fred made it his own”). As much as this collaborative film reveals of Smith, it never tries to define her or even make her its only focus. Instead, it takes her at her word: “We all have a voice. We have a responsibility to exercise it, to use it.”