Music News

Patti Smith Through an Arizonan’s Eyes

Patti Smith, in her own words, is "an American artist . . . [who has] no guilt." Though she has been making music for over 35 years, her thick, unapologetic voice can still stir you to the core. In each note is her every experience. Her joys, her sorrows. Her pleasure, her pain. Her life and her loss. She draws in listeners with a sincerity that rings in her vibrato and an aura of authenticity emitted through guttural tones. You are able to understand her genuinely emotional experiences, even without knowing them. She inspires from afar, and her uniqueness, mixed with a bold and fearless approach to life, has made her an icon.

Though many admire not only Smith's work but Smith herself — and the deliberate, meaningful ways in which she chooses to live her life — very few have access to Smith's offstage world. That is why Steven Sebring's film Dream of Life, which gives us an un-narrated glimpse into the life of the Godmother of Punk, is so interesting.

Sebring is an accomplished photographer who was raised in Arizona. Even though his film saw only a limited release, Tempe's Valley Art screened it for one weekend in October 2008 and hosted a Q&A session with Sebring after the first showing. He described his thoughtful, conceptual style, which gives the film depth and doesn't simply reduce it to the visual equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. You won't get all that now that the film is making its way to local PBS stations, but you will get a brilliant look at Smith.

Smith is many things, but conventional she is not. The film uses a raw, non-linear style that allows the artist to explain her life to us — in her own way and at her own pace. It is hardly a documentary. Rather, it is footage taken from more than 11 years of filming her at home, with her children, visiting her parents, backstage before shows, telling stories on the beach, and reflecting on those who have inspired her and those whom she has lost.

Though Sebring and Smith allow the audience to get a glimpse into her personal life, Smith is known for protecting her privacy but raising her voice when she feels her privacy has been invaded. On several occasions — including the closing night of CBGB — she actually stopped in the middle of a poem, looked directly at someone taking pictures and screamed, "Get that fucking camera out of my face!" In Dream of Life, however, Smith reaches a level of comfort with Sebring such that the camera seems to become a fly on the wall. The filming is broken up into scenes that take place over time and, occasionally, by Smith's putting her hand over the lens or simply telling Sebring that he needs to stop filming.

It is this honest and forthright relationship that makes the film so enjoyable. It does not present facts or discuss obvious, superficial questions. It takes the audience to a deeper level and gives us insight into Smith's "guilt-free" lifestyle. In one scene, she sits in her apartment, reminiscing about how she obtained the few objects that fill it, and the significance each holds. This is folded in with more abstract cuts and clips of music and poetry. Through this lens, we are welcomed into Smith's world and, for a brief time, we are able to experience it as closely as possible to the way she does. Life is full of fleeting moments.

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Sarah Ventre