Patti Smith is that rare rock icon who has aged with integrity and grace—40 years after she moved to New York City, befriended Robert Mapplethorpe, and learned to strum on a guitar given to her by Sam Shepard, she's still performing generous and passionate shows, still politically and socially engaged, and still connected to the same poetic impulses that have driven her since the beginning. With Dream of Life, director (and Smith superfan) Steven Sebring has assembled a strange and beautiful tribute to Smith, equal parts biography, music video, and love letter.
This dreamy little film claims no allegiance to consistency: At times black and white, at times in color, it meanders among anecdotes, old photographs, spoken word, remembrances of long-dead friends like Mapplethorpe and William Burroughs, excerpts from live shows, and images from Smith's touring and home lives. There's no particular narrative here, save that of a woman moving through time—and whether she is surrounded by people, joking and laughing, or alone in a graveyard, feeding a stray cat bits of a sandwich she found in her pocket, Sebring presents exactly the vision of Smith that fans both hope for and expect.
Dream of Life was 10 years in the making, and the warm relationship between subject and filmmaker is evident in the candor with which Smith addresses the camera. Sebring's presence is felt throughout the film, but he has the good sense to keep the camera's attention where it belongs: on Smith, whose openness and charm contrast intriguingly with her angular face, lanky body, and incendiary stage presence.
Anyone who doubts Smith's ongoing relevance need only listen to her performance here of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, a riotous, passionate reading that reminds just how revolutionary that document is—and when she launches into a list of charges against George W. Bush, it's impossible not to remember how revolutionary Patti Smith was, and continues to be.