Revisiting Patti Smith

Punk pioneer Patti Smith in 1979.
Punk pioneer Patti Smith in 1979. (Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Via Bloomberg News)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What happens when rockers grow old? The short answer is, they become ridiculous. Or that is how they are usually cast -- trapped in reruns of VH1's "Behind the Music," or endless reunion tours, all the sex and rebellion and talent spent, like royalty checks, ages ago.

But what if the rocker were Patti Smith, the godmother of punk, once all spatter and spit, and the documentary were a different project: not a nostalgia act, but an exploration of real things, like art and family and loss -- and not the romantic death found in a rock-and-roll lyric, but the literal kind, the kind that took Smith's husband away.

Then you might have something like Steven Sebring's "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," a collaboration between an exceptionally tenacious fashion photographer and his subject, who is now 61 years old and trying to sort it all out.

If you or your mom don't know Patti Smith from Patti LaBelle, you could show her this movie and she might enjoy it. "I'm really glad you say that," says Patti Smith, who still talks like South Jersey, where she grew up, eldest daughter of a jazz-singing waitress and a factory-working father who studied the Bible, Plato and UFO magazines.

"I feel the same way. If my mother were still alive, I feel like I could take the film to her and she would happily watch it. But she would probably say . . . " Here Smith does her mom imitation. " 'I could skip all the poetry.' My mother liked the rock-and-roll."

Says Sebring, giggling, "She liked to clean to it."

Clean, indeed. There is no sex or drugs, and very little music, in the film -- though there are lots of visits to the moody graves of long-gone poets, and a scene in which Smith and Flea, the bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, discuss bladder control. We also spend a little time with Patti's mom, who enjoyed collecting ceramic cows. (She died in 2002.) It all kind of works.

Smith and Sebring were sitting together recently in a dungeonlike bar in Park City, Utah, in the morning off-hours. They look like brother and sister troll dolls. Smith is still as slim as a guitar's neck, dressed in black velvet jacket, white shirt, with a head of woolly-bear hair that would give a Hollywood stylist a panic attack. She still looks like the combination of "a man who looks like a coyote and a woman who looks like a crow," the character she played onstage in "Cowboy Mouth," which Smith wrote in 1971 with the actor-playwright Sam Shepard, an old flame, who makes an appearance in the film. The two talk about her days as the "it" girl of the New York rock scene.

"I was never interested in a rockumentary or a behind-the-scenes thing. I have no interest in that," says Smith of the film, which premiered at Sundance in January and will be shown this Friday at Filmfest DC with guest appearances by Smith and Sebring. Next year the documentary will air on PBS.

Smith met Sebring for a photo shoot for Spin magazine in 1995, just as Smith was coming back into the public sphere after a long hiatus from performing. During the years of her retreat to the suburbs of Detroit, she saw the deaths of her close friend and muse, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; her pianist, Richard Sohl; her husband, the musician Fred "Sonic" Smith of MC5; and her brother Todd. "Just year after year, month after month, of loss," Smith says. "I was pretty shattered as a human being and I had the responsibility of two young children and I had to really start over again. The movie is really about experiencing joy in life in the saddest of times."

Sebring, alone, without a crew, filmed Smith for 11 years, using available light, and the photography is often quite beautiful by itself, a lovely home movie. The result is a collage -- intimate, arty, pretentious, and a very respectful work by a documentarian who is open about his enthusiasms. "They call her the punk poet prophet," Sebring says. "I feel like one of her soldiers, one of her messengers."

"We started it very simply," Smith says, "where Steven was filming me to get to know me better. He didn't know a lot about me. He'd come to CBGB if I was playing or shoot my kids talking or shoot me writing a poem. I didn't mind him being there. He's not invasive. He's my friend and I trust him. We're more like siblings than not. Sometimes I'd say, 'Well, I'm going to see my mom and dad, do you want to come and shoot some footage of them? It would be really nice.' "

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