Culture | Patti Smith dreams of horses

Biopic captures the melancholy beauty of a punk rock icon

Sitting in the third row of the movie theatre, I am overwhelmed by this crazy shot of a clan of horses kicking through the dirt, whipping up a cloud of dust in a hazy shade of maroon. I almost instinctively chant with the opening song – Patti Smith’s “Land:” “When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by/ horses, horses, horses, horses!”

Patti Smith: Dream of Life, is a spiritual collage, a scrapbook that has been put together absolutely spectacularly. It’s a must-see for anyone who has ever felt a deep connection with music, for anyone who has ever bought a rock’n’roll album, and felt, looking back, that the exchange was an act of fate. You won’t regret experiencing of this labour of love, that took the artist over a decade to create.

Directed by Steven Sebring, the film is like a memory chest unlocked. It bares Smith’s experiences since the death of her husband, following her on tour in cities like Tokyo and Rome, visiting with the parents, backstage with her children and bandmates. The relics she has collected during her lifetime that could easily fill up an I SPY book.

What’s great about the film is that it’s not your typical “bizarre star” documentary. We do get the regular “secret shots you’ve never seen before,” and the “oh my God, I didn’t know she was friends with Thom Yorke and Michael Stipe!” moment. But what makes this film unique is its poetry. Watching it was like going back to your good ol’ English Lit class in high school, analyzing a poem densely packed with latent symbolism and recurring themes.

Death, I believe, is the most constant motif in the film. Smith wanders through cemeteries like a fascinated, day-dreaming child. Her love of photography brought her to take pictures of the cold stones marking the graves of those she admired most, among them William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. The film’s black and white shots, coupled with its dark content, could understandably be interpreted as depressing or sinister. Strangely, this combination made the film ever more alluring, connecting the viewer to each of Smith’s multi-dimensional waves of emotion.

It’s hard not to sense the melancholic curtain hovering over you as you watch, even as you leave the cinema. But the sad tone in the film still has its moments of brilliance. Of course, Smith continues to live up to her avant-garde artist persona, her punk image – but what really shines through is her dazzling sense of humour. She’s treated just as one of the guys among her bandmates. Is it strange that her anecdotes – like when she secretly pissed in a plastic bottle during a flight through the African desert while sitting next to the oblivious pilot – brought me a little closer to her? She’s the crazy aunt everyone wishes they had.

It’s the blunt honesty running throughout the film makes it most special. After all, this is what poets do: spit their soul out instinctively, like a llama. There’s a certain frankness in the way Smith’s dumbfounding, androgynous beauty is portrayed. This earnest beauty resonates throughout, making Dream of Life all the more enchanting and irresistible. Within the world of the film, the apparent lines dividing different mediums of art – poetry, film, photography, music – have all vanished. An artist’s truth is never a bed of roses, and Patti gives us gravestones and horses.

Dream of Life is now playing at Cinema du Parc.


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