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Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Palm Pictures, 2008, Unrated

By Steven Rosen · March 11th, 2009 · Couch Potato
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Steven Sebring spent 11 years working on this film about Rock icon/poet/activist Patti Smith, as worthy a subject for a documentary as anyone in Pop music. But his project at some point overwhelmed him. Rather than deciding on a focused approach to presenting his black-and-white and color footage, he wanders through her life in a frustratingly free-associative way that lacks momentum and shortchanges many scenes just when they get most interesting. Still, you can’t ever make Patti Smith dull, so the film has its merits.

First and foremost is her radiant smile and open, almost-childlike demeanor. Her warmth is contagious; she really seems touched by a higher presence. That serves her well when discussing some of her losses — close friend/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, her brother Todd and her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith (of the band MC5). It also serves her well when visiting her family in New Jersey, showing her affection for her aging father and the well-kept yard of his working-class home. If you just want her music, what’s here is OK but leaves you wanting much more. Smith is such a crucially singular cultural figure — a kindred spirit to the Beats, the punks, Dylan, political activists, the post-Warhol New York art world, the grunge scene — that a successful film about her should double as a walk through American popular culture. This isn’t it — but it is a decent starting point. So, too, is James Crump’s Black White Gray, a documentary covering Smith’s friendship with Mapplethorpe and his lover, Sam Wagstaff. I have no doubt there will be others. Grade: B-

 
 
 
 

 

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