First-time filmmaker Steven Sebring committed a dozen years of his life to the making of this documentary about rock-music icon Patti Smith, and the results are startling and quirky in equal measures, as well as priceless. Sebring has avoided the clichés and conventions of rock biographies, bypassing any effort at setting Smith in a historical or biographical context -- instead, he focuses on Smith in the here and now (albeit across those dozen years), her life and music a work in progress (as parts of the film sometimes seem). Treating her early punk and New Wave-identified work as a given, the movie concentrates on Patti Smith in her 1990s and 21st century incarnations, which render her far more accessible (to a far wider audience) than her early work would ever had permitted. The resulting movie is less a history lesson (though one longs to see a clip of Smith from the late '70s on
The Mike Douglas Show, which Sebring reportedly bypassed because of cost, for the sheer bizarreness of it) than a vibrant account of someone who still has a lot to say in poetry and music. There's actually little structure to the movie, as we weave in and out of her music and glimpse various aspects of Smith's life, professional, intellectual, and personal, creative and emotional. What we do see of her past is presented as she has chosen to organize it, which is to say, hardly at all: a visit with her parents, artifacts such as a dress that her mother made for her, and a lot of private moments -- including visits to the graves of William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Percy Shelley, et al. -- and her thoughts on close personal friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The effect is to define Smith from the inside out, and therein lies the beauty of this movie -- unlike most musician profiles of this sort, that tend to carve in stone the image of the artist as defined by historians and the press, Sebring's movie presents about as close a look at how the artist sees herself as we're likely ever to see. The music history accounts and press hype don't even enter into it, except when Smith dismisses them with a joke. The results end up endlessly fascinating, intercutting private moments with vignettes involving Tom Verlaine, Philip Glass, et al. The latter are icing on the cake for music mavens. Speaking of music, Sebring manages to pull all of the cinematic elements together within a musical knot tied up by Smith herself -- whether strumming an old acoustic guitar (and those shots make one long for her to do an album like that) or working with her band, Lenny Kaye's crunching guitar driving the music, we get to experience the latter in exquisite detail. What's more, Smith still makes a startling visual figure three decades on from her initial fame. Sebring's decision to shoot on 16 mm film (as opposed to high-definition video) also proves decisively correct, as the closeness and warmth of the image only heightens the impact of the intimacy of the broader portrait being presented; video would have been too precise, clean, and cold. This picture is not only a perfect complement to Smith's music but, in many ways, far more accessible than some of the early records. People who never loved (or even understood) punk or New Wave music should love this picture, and they might even be sold on her music, which comes forth with such energy and intimacy that the DVD edition of this movie will probably be an essential addition to any fan's collection.
All Movie Guide - Bruce Eder