Shot over 11 years by acclaimed fashion photographer Steven Sebring, Patti Smith: Dream of Life is a remarkable plunge into the life, art, memories and philosophical reflections of the legendary rocker, poet and artist. Sometimes dubbed the "godmother of punk" — a designation justified by clips of her early rage-fueled performances — Smith was much more than that when she broke through with her 1975 debut album, Horses. A poet and visual artist as well as a rocker, she befriended and collaborated with some of the brightest lights of the American counterculture, an often testosterone-driven scene to which she brought a swagger and fierceness all her own.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life, winner of a 2008 Sundance Film Festival Award for Excellence in Cinematography, is a riveting, intimate telling of Smith's long, strange trip. She may not be the only middle-class Jersey girl to have made the leap to New York City in pursuit of artistic dreams, but she may be the only one to have emerged — and survived — as a multifaceted poet, artist and rock star. Through performance footage, interviews, poems, paintings, photographs and Smith's voice-over reminiscences, Dream of Life reveals a complicated, charismatic personality wrestling with the paradoxes of being an artist in America and of being a woman in a male-dominated music scene.
Smith also wrestles with the tragedies — the deaths of her husband and brother — that brought her back to New York and to performing. Layering Smith's words over innovative camera techniques, the film explores how one woman discovered herself through music, how she survived tragedy, how she raised two children and how she endeavors in a quest for peace, for herself and for the world.
In telling Smith's story, Sebring plumbs the history of several important cultural movements. Smith's collaborations and close friendships with poets William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and musicians Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe reveal the links that make her a bridge between the Beats, the punk movement and musicians of today. The colorful moments in Dream of Life are plenty: Smith as an angelic street urchin, reciting "A Prayer for New York" in footage from 1975; a jam session with her 1970s collaborator, playwright Sam Shepard; Smith reading an Allen Ginsberg poem at Ginsberg's funeral; and Smith hanging out on the beach with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Shot in lush, textured 16mm film, Dream of Life is a vibrant chronicle of rock history and the story of a bold woman who would not be denied on stage or off. It is also the story of a survivor whose creative intelligence thrives more than 30 years after the world first became aware of her.
"A few weeks after I met Patti in 1995, she invited me to see her perform at Irving Plaza in New York City," says Sebring. "I was completely blown away; she wasn't the person I had met at her home in Detroit. She had been this really sweet, almost innocent woman. And then at Irving Plaza, she was raging, spitting music and spewing poetry. It was fantastic. After the show, I asked her, ‘Has anybody ever filmed you?' I didn't know at the time that there was so little documentation of her aside from concert footage.
"I kept shooting as Patti's life kept changing; over the years, we've become like brother and sister," Sebring says. "They call her the punk poet prophet. Well, I'm one of her soldiers, or one of her messengers. I want to turn people on to Patti Smith."