Listening to Patti Smith’s music or watching footage of her raw, explosive performances (most of which is withheld until the second half of this documentary), you’d doubt her likeliness to be quoting William Blake backstage or musing on the differences between Picasso and Pollock while painting in her studio. Best known for her music and its part in developing American punk rock, poetry comes off as Smith’s motivating passion (Sebring accompanies her to the gravesites of Blake, Shelley and Ginsberg).
Outside performances and painting, Smith’s verbose honesty, warmth and shyness come in surprising contrast to her raging stage persona. Sebring quietly crafts his very effective portrait with this psychological profile taking precedence over stargazing. Smith’s only voice-over is a deadpan timeline of her life recited during the opening minutes that comes off as practically sarcastic, a parody of the obligatory conventions of the artist biopic. In the end, we don’t learn the exhaustive details of Smith’s career or even her personal biography, but anybody seeing this film will know exactly how to speak to her should they meet her one day at a poetry reading.
In fact, for a director making his feature-length debut Sebring seems very confident, foregoing any thesis-pushing structure and opting for an expressively edited, casually beautiful portrait excised from footage shot following Smith for over a decade (lots of crispy black and white scenes, and fuzzy, meditative cutaways to landscapes gliding past in a colorful blur). The result is not the crash course in Smith’s musical career and its significance for which some unfamiliar viewers might be hoping. As the title indicates, this is a film about the entire life of an enigmatic woman who writes music and poetry, sings, paints, raises children, has living parents and a deceased husband, and is close friends with some of the most significant members of America’s recent modernisms.
A slightly awkward living room acoustic jam session with Sam Sheppard is more interesting and revealing than any of Smith’s concert footage. Elsewhere, surprising screentime is devoted to poring over the items strewn about Smith’s home, slow pans fetishizing her various possessions as if searching for some hidden clue to her psyche hidden among browned pages and rumpled baby clothes. In such scenes she also becomes a kind of time capsule for a recent moment of bustling cultural vitality and possibility, the magically remembered 70s and 80s whose arts were exciting and whose New York was gritty (scenes at the Chelsea Hotel or CBGB stroke a kind of collective nostalgia).
Opens August 6 at Film Forum.