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(Patti Smith: Dream of Life airs on PBS’s POV Wednesday, December 30, 2009. Check your local listings for dates and times. Also available are director Steven Sebring’s companion book and the DVD.)

If you’re looking for a traditional rock-and-roll biopic, then be forewarned when sitting down to watch Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life. An experimental, dream-of-consciousness reverie, Sebring’s film honors the musician/activist/poet by strumming to its own rhythm. The result is a poetic, untamed portrait of a living rock icon.

Though Smith is still alive, many of her best friends are not. This loss casts a pall over the film, which, combined with Sebring’s striking use of B&W 16mm and Smith’s own haunting music, might make it seem like a sad lament. But if one succumbs to Sebring and Smith’s impressionistic groove, the film ultimately reveals itself to be a testament to a life lived without compromise, one in which art and family and politics are forever intertwined.

pattismithdreamoflifestillA commercial photographer by trade, Sebring latched onto Smith in the mid-1990s and followed her with a film camera for the next eleven—yes, eleven—years. He was there for her return to the stage opening for Bob Dylan in 1995, as well as her emotional appearance at Allen Ginsberg’s memorial service in 1997. In what might be the film’s most poignant sequence, Smith returns to New Jersey to show us her childhood home and introduce us to her kindhearted parents. So much for that tortured artist theory.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life unfurls like a kaleidoscopic collage, as Smith wanders the world to visit the gravesites of her heroes: Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake, Gregory Corso. Along the way, she reconnects with many friends—Sam Shepard, Michael Stipe, Dylan—who inspire her to continue creating music. While most of those celebrity appearances feel natural, a late film beachside powwow with Flea seems superfluous. More important than all of those recognizable faces, however, are the presences of Smith’s children, who we see grow up before our very eyes. While Smith’s music is an acquired taste, her devotion to her family, her tireless creative drive, and her unwavering spirit are not. Wannabes, take note. This is how a true artist’s life is lived.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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