Wow. This film was pretty intolerable. Let me first say that I’m a huge Patti Smith fan. Horses is one of the greatest records ever. And though I haven’t paid that much attention to her late career output, Gone Again, the one record I have heard, is fantastic.
Clearly, what I was hoping for with Patti Smith: Dream of Life, was a rock doc about one of the truly unique spirits in rock and roll. However, the film does not even attempt to be a conventional, career-spanning doc. There are maybe 3 minutes of archival footage, no live footage from back in the day, almost no classic Patti Smith songs on the soundtrack, and the live performances that we do see are from a later tour, and even with those, you are only treated to snippets of song. Ultimately, the film is a cinéma vértié look at the recent incarnation of rock poetess, Patti Smith. The film is clearly attempting to be her Don’t Look Back. It’s a choice that is a strange one. Don’t Look Back has the fortune of capturing Dylan at a critical transformative point in his career, plus he’s at the height of his powers and he’s meeting and mingling with rock legends. Who wouldn’t want a window into that world? Would I have liked to see a cinema vértié portrait of Patti Smith in 1975? Hell yeah. In 2005, that tactic is a little less compelling. Is she still a strong, outspoken artists with a lot left to give her fans, her friends, and the world? Well...yes. But let’s face it, Patti Smith, circa 1999-2009 (the years over which the movie were made), doesn’t have the compelling storyline that Patti Smith, circa 1975 does. If you’re like me, you’re aching to see the formative years, hear about the formative years, experience the formative years. This is not that film in any way, shape or form.
The grainy b&w cinematography is beautiful, but like many vértié films, it feels cold. Also, much of Smith’s voice-over feels like a poetry reading, like she’s on stage, performing for us. While I like much of what she says, it feels more like a performance and less from the heart and therefore takes on an air of pretension. Smith talks a lot about her inspiration to be an artist, the connection to Rimbaud, Burroughs and Blake. She clearly tries to make a connection between those who have influenced her and her hope that she can serve as an influence to others. All noble, but the coldness and the pretension of the film dilute the message.
One of the awesome things about Patti Smith has been her ability to transcend the rock world, the poetry world, the political world and the art world. But for me, her foot that was firmly planted in the rock world was the element that gave her voice that undeniable fire. This film, unfortunately, is almost completely planted in the art and poetry world, and the fiery breath of rock and roll is sadly missing.
Here's a clip you won't see in the movie.