SPIRIT DREAM Patti Smith

A striking new documentary
arose from unlikely circumstances.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

 

Patti Smith: Dream of
Life
may indeed be a lovingly photographed tone poem of a film that, for a
documentary, is shockingly active in its pursuit of the present rather than
just its subject’s past. Both sides of Smith are crucial to consider; her rise
from Piss Factory poetess and Mapplethorpe muse to punk doyenne and
post-nuclear age Beat Gen icon; from single Jersey
girl to wife of a legendary equal to widow and beyond; from respected authoress
to earth mother.

 

But that it was patiently and passionately shot across an
eleven year period by a first-time feature director whose usual mien is fast
fashion – by a photographer who knew little of his subject to begin with – is more
fascinating.

 

“Yet as soon as I met her asked if I could film her with no
intention of it being anything but what it was,” says director Steve Sebring
right after a fashion shoot in a voice soft, slow and familiar. “I just wanted
to document her in a cool way.” That he did.

 

Sebring, a 42 year old lensman who shoots lanky models and
petulant actors daily and has done shorts for Coach and DKNY would seem on the
short list of documentarians for Smith; that is, if Smith have ever considered
the idea. “She told me about being approached – big names too – but the first
thing they did was shove a contract in her face,” notes Sebring. That’s not her
style. “And I wasn’t looking to do anything traditional.” That’s not his style.

There was no style to start. In 1995, Sebring showed up at her Detroit home at a time after husband/MC5
guitarist Fred Smith’s passing and that of Patti’s brother Todd and her
keyboardist Richard Sohl. She had toured since the release of Wave in 1979 and was considering doing
shows at the urging of Bob Dylan and new photographs at the provocation of
Michael Stipe.

 

“There was a list of photographers she had to approve
because she doesn’t like to be photographed – Avedon, Lebovitz. But Michael
suggested me. So I showed up, knocked on the door of the little castle-y home
with all this wild ivy grown around it and Patti answered the door in a long
t-shirt and bare feet. I think she forgot about me.

Sebring wasn’t a fawning fan of Smith’s but found himself bonding immediately
with her and totally enraptured with the day’s long coffee talk and chilled-out
recollection of Smith’s life, children and the photos of Burroughs and Ginsberg
that adorn her home. “I didn’t even pick up a camera until the end of the day,
I was so lost in our connection. We bonded.”

 

Next thing you know Sebring’s shooting an Irving Plaza
show in Manhattan (‘She was spitting, angry, on
fire, not the same Patti I met at her house”) and a London gig with Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye
in tow. She had let Sebring in – a rarity amongst those who know and walk
softly within Smith’s inner circle.

 

“Lenny grabbed me in London
and told me, ‘You realize the situation don’t you? No one ever gets in.””

Sebring was humbled. And his future with Smith was set. He just kept showing up
and shooting film footage of her when he could – all self-financed. Smith
allowed Sebring to do this because he never brought up money or future or
rights; never had a goal beyond just capturing Patti Smith, getting to know
Patti Smith. “And now we’re like family, which is why I think the film is so
intimate,” says Sebring, who’s proud of winning 2008’s Sundance Cinematography
Award for his photographic ability to capture Smith as his lens-flaring cinematic
inspirations Welles and Kurosawa did their actors. “To get her in her bedroom
talking, showing me Robert’s [Mapplethorpe’s] ashes; could you image Dylan
doing that?”

 

Usually without a crew save for his own strong back (“a lot
of lugging”), Sebring captured Smith in her rare precious moments – at graves,
at readings, a home. It wasn’t until 2007 when, after he looked at his footage,
that Sebring and Smith formed a company in order to release what he shot
through Palm Pictures.

 

“I’m proud of being her messenger. I want everybody to know
about her if they already don’t. When I started I knew there was a real aura
around her – intimidating yet beautiful. But she knew I just trying to make
some cool art.”

 

When asked if he had to make the film into a short, what
footage could he not live without, Sebring reaffirms the deeply personal nature
of the project.

 

“It’s the beginning of the film where she’s singing ‘Jackson’s
Song’ and standing at Fred’s grave – that was a turning point for her, a new
beginning. Being in the Detroit
house and she’s alone in the space with the bottle where Fred had his last
drink after standing at his grave; as far as this project goes, that was a big,
big thing.

 

“There are shots of Patti where she’s standing at the wall
of the farmhouse where Rimbaud wrote A
Season in Hell
. But… the footage at the Smith house and his grave; there’s
so much of Fred’s spirit in the film it’s haunting.”

 

 

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