Director Steven Sebring and Patti Smith. © 1995 Sebring Archives
Dream of Life is not your typical rockumentary. But then again, its subject, Patti Smith, is not your typical rocker.
"Making a rockumentary doesn't interest me, and it doesn't interest Patti either," says director Steven Sebring on the phone from his New York studio.
"She comes across as an artist, not a rock star. I never knew her as just a punk rocker. Here's a woman who can play the last show ever at CBGB's and the next thing you know she's at the Tate Modern doing a reading on her way to William Blake's church to give a lecture."
The connection between Sebring and Smith after 12 years of shooting and post-production still endures - Smith is the godmother of Sebring's child.
But when he first met Smith on a photo assignment for Spin Magazine, he didn't know much about her beyond the song Because The Night. Sitting in her house in Detroit in 1996 while the photo session was supposed to be happening, they spent hours hanging out and talking instead.
"I didn't take a picture until the end of the day," Sebring says. "She had to remind me that we should take some pictures."
After the shoot, she invited him to Irving Plaza in New York City, where she was doing one of her first shows in years. Watching her incendiary performance, Sebring couldn't believe it was the same woman he'd met in Detroit.
"She came out spewing poetry and just raging. And I asked her as soon as she got off the stage, ‘Has anyone ever filmed you?' I had no plan to get to know her - I just wanted to get to know her through my lens."
We get to know her, too, in Sebring's divine documentary. With its strange shifts in time and a soundtrack full of nature sounds, it draws a complete portrait of Smith as poet, artist, writer, lover, mother - even daughter.
In beautiful footage of Smith with her aging parents in her childhood home, her calls of "Daddy!" jar with her status as a hard-ass punk icon.
"She cherishes the fact that her mom and dad are documented," says Sebring proudly.
In keeping with the title Dream Of Life, the movie doesn't unfold chronologically, which gives it a distinctive style. It's always shifting in time - Smith's children are grown-ups early on and then preteens toward the end, for example - and it's never clear what year it is.
"I always knew it was going to work that way," says Sebring, crediting his gifted editor, Angelo Carrao. "This way, I could show her playing the song Radio Baghdad and then show footage of the anti-war protest (in which Smith performs a blistering anti-George W. tirade) that happened years before."
Sebring also doesn't baby his audience. The film is full of famous people who are never identified. You have to know that when Smith mentions a William, she's referring to William Burroughs, or that the guy she's butchering You Are My Sunshine with on guitar is Sam Shepard or that it's Allen Ginsberg in his bed, his spirit having just left his body.
"If we start spelling out who these people are, I feel like we're forcing the situation," explains Sebring. "I wanted people to be engaged and inspired by this woman and to do their own research."
Most will be happy to go along for the ride. This is a movie that keeps you riveted no matter what your background.
"After a showing at the Film Forum here in New York, a famous poet who's blind and hadn't been to a movie in 10 years came up to me and said, ‘I saw that movie, every bit of it,' and I gasped.
"I don't think I could get a better compliment."
Seeing Smith on stage for the first time/genesis of the film:
On not identifying via subtitles people who appear in the film: