The boy looked at Patti

New film documents a rock 'n' roll matriarch, from her home in Detroit and beyond

One can make the same criticism about Patti Smith: Dream of Life — Steven Sebring's new documentary about the rock star, poet, artist and activist — that Smith's biggest detractors have leveled against her for years. That is, at the same time, the film is poignant and pretentious; powerful and petty.

Fashion photographer Sebring met Smith 11 years ago, during a SPIN magazine photo session, and, on the advice of their mutual friend, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, approached her with the idea. Smith agreed, and the documentarian was given extraordinary access to his subject for more than a decade. Sebring claims in the press material for the film that Smith is "certainly more than a rock icon" and that his goal was to "discover who Patti Smith is." Thus, what the viewer gets is a portrait of Smith rather than a traditional, straightforward documentary. To say the film is nonlinear in its approach and portrayal is an understatement. The majority of it is shot in black and white — much of it might at best be described as impressionistic (or, at worst, out of focus) — with sudden bursts of color footage thrown in here and there that often don't have much rhyme or reason. For instance, Smith mentions that her late friend, legendary artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, loved Nathan's hot dogs ... and suddenly we're treated to some color images. The artsy-fartsiness, however, seems to fall squarely at the feet of Sebring, and not Smith.

Smith narrates the film herself — both in verse and plain speech — and her biggest fans will find much here to love.

Early in the film, we're treated to footage of her old Detroit-area home, as well as a visit to late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith's grave: "We buried Fred in his beloved Detroit, beneath ancient ship markers," the voice-over says. "It has become for us all a place of pilgrimage, of memory, of return." Fred is then revisited near the conclusion of the film via a tape of him performing Patti's "She Walked Home," a song she says Fred adapted as his own theme. The song plays over footage of Patti and daughter Jesse walking through Central Park and taking a horse-and-buggy ride through Manhattan. The Smiths' children — Jackson and Jesse — figure predominantly throughout the film, both as young children and young adults. It's especially touching when Patti says of her now-grown son: "Playing with him is truly what it felt like to play with Fred. [Jackson's] a little taller, though. He fills his father's shoes well."

There's also moving footage of Smith with her seldom-seen, now-deceased parents at their family home in New Jersey. And there are images, as well as footage, of Smith with iconic friends, from the great (Dylan, Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Philip Glass) to the questionable (Ralph Nader, Red Hot Chili Pepper asshole Flea). An acoustic guitar jam session with former lover Sam Shepard, performing old blues and country classics, is especially cool. ("I met Sam when he was playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders," she recalls. "I thought, 'That is one hillbilly son of a bitch!'") And remembrances of Burroughs at the Chelsea Hotel are hilarious. ("I had a big crush on him. He'd say [imitating Burroughs' distinctive voice] 'My dear, I am a homosexual.' But that didn't really bother me. I adored him.") She talks of how Burroughs was a direct influence on the creation of Horses, and also shows the remains of the cremated Mapplethorpe (who shot that album's iconic cover) that she still keeps. ("They're not really like ashes. They're beautiful. His mother and father have most of his remains but I still have some")

One wishes that Sebring had concentrated more on Smith's humorous and humanistic side, like those mentioned above, and less on the pretentiousness. An interlude near the conclusion featuring footage of Smith at Arthur Rimbaud's grave, as she delivers a poem about "love at a urinal," is especially insufferable; earlier, more mirthful footage of her at beat poet Gregory Corso's grave, as she reflects on Ginsberg's death, is much less so. Death looms largely throughout the film, of course — but Smith's life is celebrated, as it should be, as a celebration of life in the face of death; the film's title is taken from the title of the 1988 album she recorded with Fred, and that was taken from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, which ends the film via a Smith recitation.

Another major complaint is that while trying to show that Smith is more than a rock star, the director (and perhaps Smith herself) shortchanges the importance of Patti the rock 'n' roll star. Smith is one of the greatest rock performers this reviewer ever saw during her mid-'70s heyday, a perfect blend of the greatest rock stars that came before her, and watching her dance with a fat grin in the audience at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater last year — as her band covered the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop"— was as poignant as anything portrayed in this film. And while there's no footage of her as the young performing wildcat, there are scenes (perhaps not enough, though) of some more recent and overwhelming performances in various parts of the world, including an anarchic "My Generation," a staggering "Rock N Roll Nigger" and a still-powerful "Horses." So, to hear Smith claim that she originally "expressed myself albeit somewhat awkwardly through rock 'n' roll," or later stating that she always pictured herself as a Maria Callas, Lotte Lenya or Billie Holiday but "never dreamed of singing in a rock 'n' roll band" is just a tad disconcerting.

And yet, things, like the world, change. That's perhaps a main theme in Dream of Life. A very striking moment in the film comes during the performance of "My Generation," when she chants: "My generation. We had dreams. We had dreams. And we created fucking George Bush. ..." Hopefully, as the last week's events seem to illustrate, the American "ideals" that led to that gigantic blunder are now changing as well.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 14-15, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 16. Call 313-833-3237.

Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].