In the '70s, Patti Smith was part of a fledging New York punk scene that leaned as hard on the artsy side of music-making as the visceral and noisy. Smith was a rock critic before she took to the stage, and her 1975 debut album, Horses, was her most sublime piece of rock criticism, as energetic and self-aware as a work from French cinema's New Wave (a movement itself advanced by critics). Smith quoted Van Morrison and Wilson Pickett while getting under the skin of their songs, explicating the deeper meanings without losing the sexual thrust.
Photographer Steven Sebring is a longtime friend of Smith's, and he spent 10 years piecing together Patti Smith: Dream Of Life, a fans-only document of rock's premier poet. But while Sebring gained amazing access to Smith's world tours and family life, very little about the finished product suggests it should've taken a decade to make. The film is loose to a fault, dropping a little biography and too little concert footage between long scenes of Smith hanging around her apartment, talking about pop and literature.
The movie suggests a context for Smith's life and work, as she talks about carrying the torch of Walt Whitman and William Burroughs and passing it on to the next generation, and as she sits in cluttered rooms filled with all the accumulated artifacts that continue to define and inspire her. But aside from some down-to-earth scenes with her parents and kids, the film never penetrates beyond how Smith chooses to define herself. And the paltry amount of live performances is a crime. In some ways, Smith singing "Gloria" live would've been all the context anyone would ever need.