If you go into Steven Sebring’s 2008 film about the life of Patti Smith expecting a conventional documentary, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Dream of Life doesn’t tell us very much about Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe or Sam Wagstaff. It doesn’t examine each individual album and tell us how it was made. We don’t really learn much more about Patti Smith than we already know. Instead we get a selection of the footage Sebring made during the eleven year collaboration that began in 1997, and ended with the film’s release.
Whether or not you enjoy Dream of Life probably depends on three things. If you’re a hardcore Patti Smith fan you’ve probably already seen it. There’s also the black and white photography. Steven Sebring is no Robert Mapplethorpe, but he’s captured at least some of the aesthetic that once made Smith an icon among the kinds of people who know the difference between Tri-X Pan and T-Max 100. The key to appreciating Dream of Life, however, is to notice the common thread that runs through the seemingly disconnected series of interviews, performances, poetry readings, and biographical reminiscences.
If you’re not some kind of artist you probably won’t.
It’s probably best to think of Dream of Life a a secular sermon for failed artists. Patti Smith might just be the best example of a popular artist motivated by the religious impulse currently working in the United States. Smith is of Irish descent, but a Protestant, not a Catholic. Her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. She’s not a particularly good poet or singer. She’s not an accomplished musician. She is a great preacher. Even though she very famously opened her cover of the Van Morrison song Gloria with the iconic phrase “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” watching Patti Smith will often summon up the ghosts of George Whitefield and the First Great Awakening. From Piss Factory, her first recorded song, to the album Wave, which would mark the end of the first phase of her career, Patti Smith broke all the rules governing even the most radical side of classic rock and roll. Her lyrics are less about puppy love, sex, or even politics than they are about spirituality, not the tame, fenced in spirituality of Christian rock or country and western, but the wild, fantastical eruptions of a New Light revival, of speaking in tongues, of the chaotic world of the fallen soul. Smith’s band, while not quite so experimental as Sonic Youth or the Pixies, still manages to provide a framework for her rhapsodic verses, the loud, jangly garage rock sometimes echoing, sometimes following, sometimes indicating the breakup of conscious, logical thought, but never quite getting in the way.
Patti Smith’s later career, from her only hit in the 1980s, People Have the Power, through Gone Again in 1996, to her series of albums during early 2000s, is more conventional, her songs more openly leftist and political, more Phil Ochs than Rimbaud. Dream of Life, which contains interviews and photographs from the 1970s, but which was filmed from the late 1990s through 2008, recaptures the more anarchic aesthetic of Horses and Radio Ethiopia. There’s a wonderful sequence where Smith reads out an indictment of the presidency of George W. Bush, opening with the Declaration of Independence, but eventually swelling like a flood tide into a list of his crimes, Iraq Katrina, torture, the unitary executive. The longings of her youth take over in late middle-age, the low church, New Light spirituality breaking through the protest songs, anti-war rallies, and the distinguished lecture series of the punk princess emeritus.
Art, for Patti Smith, is not about form. It’s not about words, notes, images or narratives. It’s about all of those things and one more, freedom. The democratic project is now more aesthetic than it is political. Living the life of the creative artist becomes identical to living the life of the democratic, free man or woman in the age of the plutocracy. The outsider poet becomes the revolutionary, the rock and roll singer the conduit through which William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud are channeled into the mass media. Perhaps the most vivid, memorable sequence in Dream of Life involves Smith’s discussion of Blake, the brilliant working class poet and engraver who worked in total obscurity, yet as she points out, worked joyously in total obscurity.
“If you want to live outside of society,” she says, joyously, “you’d better be willing to take responsibility for it, because a lot of shit is going to come your way.”