Patti Smith Dream of Life Review

Patricia Lee Smith was born in Chicago in 1946. After leaving school, she worked in a factory, an experience which inspired her early song “Piss Factory”. In the late Sixties, she moved to New York City, where she made a strong friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and for a while they lived together in the Chelsea Hotel. She performed on stage, making another lifelong friend in actor/playwright Sam Shepard, wrote poetry, song lyrics (some for her then boyfriend Allen Lanier, keyboards player with Blue Oyster Cult) and rock journalism. She moved into performing her own poems, initially backed by Lenny Kaye on guitar, then a full band. Produced by John Cale, and with a then-startling androgynous cover photo by Mapplethorpe, her album Horses came out in 1975.

Horses is a fascinating album, combining brazen attitude, casual androgyny, performance poetry and three-chord rock music, including two innovative deconstructions of earlier songs, Van Morrison's “Gloria” (which begins with opening lines “Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine” and takes on a whole new aura considering it's a woman singing it) and “Land of a Thousand Dances”. At times pretentious as hell, and compelling because of that, it's a highly influential album from the early part of the punk era, and established a new template for female singer/songwriters. It influenced some men too, notably Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

Three other albums followed: the next but one, Easter, features the hit single “Because the Night”, cowritten by Bruce Springsteen. After “Wave” in 1979, Smith retired, married Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5 and had two children, son Jackson and daughter Jesse, both of whom appear in this documentary. She made a comeback with Dream of Life in 1988, followed by Gone Again in 1996, the latter album haunted by the deaths in a short period of time of Fred Smith, her brother Todd and her original keyboardist Richard Sohl.

Steven Sebring's documentary Dream of Life, twelve years in the making, is a somewhat unstructured look at Smith's life. Although Smith gives a brief voiceover rundown of the main events in her life, I've gone into some detail above as it is incomplete – in particular “Because the Night” isn't mentioned at all. Is there some urge to airbrush this song from history? There's more attention paid to another song from Easter, “Rock N Roll Nigger”, which we learn (in a deleted scene) was a favourite of Smith's now-late mother to clean the house to!

Most of the documentary is shot in 16mm black and white, interspersed with archive footage and some new material, some of it in colour. It begins in 1995, with Smith touring for the first time in sixteen years. In between the on-stage footage, which shows that she is still a compelling live performer, we see her at her parents' house, her political activity, her sorting through some old belongings, walking through Central Park with Jesse, and visiting the graves of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs (both of whom were friends), Percy Shelley, Arthur Rimbaud and of course her late husband. She comes across as very likeable, which contrasts with her ferocity on stage.

Dream of Life is best for established fans, as Sebring doesn't leave much leeway for newcomers. Some on-screen captions identifying people would not have gone amiss. If you are a fan, then there's much to enjoy in an hour and three quarters. If you're a beginner, you may well be baffled at times.


Patti Smith Dream of Life is released on DVD by Drakes Avenue on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.

Much has been said in the past on this site about the quality of Drakes Avenue DVD releases. This one seems to be a step up in many ways, though a couple of faults let it down.

The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Given the film's 16mm origins, you suspect this has been cropped for cinema release (to possibly as wide as 1.85:1) but as this is a documentary clearly shot on the run, precise framing is not an issue. The picture is very grainy, but I don't doubt that is what the film should look like. Although this is hardly demo quality, there's nothing really wrong with it.

The soundtrack is more problematic. There are two options: a 2.0 (Dolby Surround) track as default and a 5.1 option listed amongst the extras. There's no doubt in my mind that the 2.0 track is far superior: fuller, warmer, with much more prominent bass. In addition, the 5.1 track is noticeably out of synch, at least on the checkdisc I reviewed. Regrettably, there are no subtitles available.

There are two other extras. The first is the trailer (1:39). This is presented in 4:3 but clearly something has gone amiss as the picture is anamorphically squeezed. There are fifteen deleted scenes, with a Play All option (total running time 33:07). These are also presented in 4:3 but this time that seems correct as they are sourced from video with a timecode running along the bottom of the screen. Some of these snippets are as engaging as those included in the film, even though it is long enough already.

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