Monday, August 25, 2008

Movies: Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Sometimes, I complain that documentaries about famous people are too linear. But sometimes, they can be over-impressionistic, like Steven Sebring's Patti Smith movie. Biography is summarized and done away with in the first few minutes of the picture, in Patti's plain voice layered over the diagetic sounds of a rattling train; we see the view out of its moving windows. The rest of the film continues to use this layering of sound; we see Patti singing one song, sitting on the floor of her room and strumming an old Gibson from the 1930s, but we hear her recorded voice singing a different song, for example. Almost as if the one sound wasn't enough. Which it may not be.

I knew little about Patti Smith before the movie, but don't know much more after it, except that she has a son and a daughter. What I did know I knew from watching an R.E.M. interview about their song E-Bow the Letter (perhaps my favorite-ever R.E.M. song, which features her voice). After that, I procured her album Horses (they mention it), but was kind of disappointed, or maybe just weirded out. Her voice is unquestionably stunning, far outstripping all other female voices of her generation. But her songs are not the most pristine showcases for that voice; on Horses, the trembling beauty is interrupted with spoken word (not so bad) and rhythmic shouting (not so good). I think it's safe to blame 1975 and its concomitant CBGB culture rather than Smith, though she remains completely unapologetic about being loud and visceral and angry when required.

What Sebring does is assemble ten years worth of footage from conversations, interviews, and mostly a lot of just hanging around into a lengthy montage, a kind of extended music video with some talking in between. For a fan, it is probably a whirling delight. For a curious, potentially interested listener who still needs to be convinced, it's not quite convincing.

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