Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Review: "Patti Smith: Dream of Life"

Writing a review for a film like Steven Sebring's Patti Smith: Dream of Life is a daunting task indeed. It's impossible to convey the film's myriad emotions and subtle layers, its agonies and ecstasies, and the sheer rock-n-roll stream of consciousness of it all without sounding like hyperbole.

But ecstatic praise here is not only appropriate, it is totally and completely deserved.

An intimate portrait of an artist 10 years in the making, Patti Smith: Dream of Life doesn't even try to be a conventional biography or music doc. Sebring is instead aiming for something much more complex and profound. There is no narrative thread, no talking heads, no interviews to speak of, instead, Sebring looks at the legendary rock artist through home videos and candid filming sessions as the camera follows her through her concerts and her life in a small apartment, where she entertains visitors like Sam Shepard for impromptu jam sessions on the guitar.

In fact, Smith sums up her life story during a brief narration in the film's first five minutes. Because ultimately, that's all beside the point. You can throw facts and figures around all day but never get to the essence of who a person really is, and that is what interests Sebring, and in turn Smith, the most.

Shot mostly in grainy, 16 mm film, Dream of Life takes on a shot-on-the fly, home video quality, seeing through all the hype and publicity to the human beneath the artist. It's as if we're seeing Smith through her own eyes, told with her own words, music, and art. The archival footage is few and far between, but what little there is blends so well with the new footage, that its almost hard to tell what's what. It somehow manages to place the feeling of the film squarely in the 1970s, but with a timeless quality that transcends time and place and is urgently contemporary, as if no matter when one watches the film, it will feel powerfully in the now.

Always a firebrand, especially on stage, Smith's path crosses with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, and Philip Glass, and her fiery personality takes her
political leanings to full force whether during concerts or at rallies. Smith is living history, but Sebring treats it like just another day in her life, giving the film an intimacy that is almost staggering.

In the end we may not know any more hard facts about Smith than we did going in, but Dream of Life treats us to something more rewarding, who she is in her heart of hearts. She remains an enigmatic figure, just as the film remains mysterious and dreamlike, ebbing and flowing through ruminations on spirituality, politics, life, love and sex.

It's a mesmerizing, astonishingly free form tapestry, almost like a cross between Godard and I'm Not There, where convention is thrown out the window in favor of a soul-piercing window into the mind of a legend.

There are so many layers and aspects to be dealt with in Dream of Life, but those are for someone far more insightful and talented than me. In fact it's not really anyone. This is a film that must be felt, not described, reflected on, not explained. It is an emotional journey, a force of nature, an exhilarating and original rock and roll love poem that is not only the best documentary I have seen this year (or in several years for that matter), but one of the best films of the year period. It's b
eautiful...masterful...perfect.

GRADE - **** (out of four)

PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE; Directed by Steven Sebring; Featuring Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, Philip Glass, Flea, Jay Dee Dougherty; Not Rated; Opens Wednesday, August 6 at the Film Forum in Manhattan.

2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"It's impossible to convey the film's myriad emotions and subtle layers, it's agonies and ecstasies, and the sheer rock-n-roll consciousness of it all."
Well, suberbly conveyed there, no question. I am amazed that a documentary with no "talking heads, no interviews or narrative thread" as you relate, can work as well as it does, but that alternate 'home video' footage may be a fully sufficient device (again, as you contend)
It opens here on Wednesday, auguest 6th in Manhattan, so I will soon make my own plans to see it.
Very impressive review--your passion shines through.

nick plowman said...

I just finished watching this, so I have not read this, but I will as soon as I am done writing my own.

I think I am in love with the doc as well.