No person is just one thing. I know I am not just a fashion photographer. And Patti Smith is certainly not just a rock icon. She is much more. For me, this movie is about discovering who Patti Smith is.
This process of discovery has taken place over the course of 11 incredible years of filming. I can’t believe it, but a quarter of my life has been spent framing her in my lens. And through this film, I want to channel that experience to the audience.
It all happened so organically. I was just interested in her and in getting to know her as a person. As our friendship blossomed over a decade, and as I got to know her, my lens was getting to know her as well.
Patti is a constant reminder to me that there’s an urgency in the world. Everyone sits back in his or her comfort zone. No one goes to record stores and researches new artists anymore. So few people are out there knocking down the walls. Nowadays, everything is presented to us in an easily digestible format, accessible with the click of a button.
The world we live in almost doesn’t seem real. I grew up with the top hits MTV fed me. But the music world has so much more to offer. That’s why Patti is so important. There’s something so raw about her; she cuts through all the artifice. Whether she’s writing poetry or rocking out onstage, she’s the real thing.
She’s a rock star, a poet, an artist, a mother and an activist. She’s a folk hero. She’s been through a lot of tragedy and yet she has come through it. I can’t think of anyone who’s like her.
They call her the punk poet prophet. I feel like one of her soldiers, or one of her messengers. I want to turn people on to Patti Smith. I want to get her message out.
I met Patti on a Spin photo shoot in 1995. At the time, she was recording a song with Michael Stipe, whom I had just photographed. The story I’ve heard is that Michael encouraged her to ask for me when Spin wanted to photograph her. That’s how I got the job.
So I went to her home outside Detroit, just before the album Gone Again came out. She hadn’t returned to touring yet. And her husband, Fred, had passed away the year before. When I got there, we went to a local coffee shop and we just hung out all day. I don’t think we took pictures until the very end of that first day. We connected as human beings.
A few weeks later, she invited me to see her at Irving Plaza in New York City. When I saw her perform I was completely blown away, because she wasn’t the person I had met. She had been this really sweet, almost innocent, interesting woman. And then at Irving Plaza she was raging, spitting music and spewing poetry. It was fantastic.
After the show, I asked her right there, “Has anybody ever filmed you?” And she laughed a little bit. I didn’t know at the time that there was so little documentation of her aside from concert footage. I guess she’s always been very private. She didn’t answer me. She just laughed and I said, “No, really, you’re incredible.” She said, “Well, we go on tour in a few weeks.” I called her a couple of times after that, but I didn’t get an answer right away. I didn’t have a specific concept in mind. I never pitched her. I just said I wanted to do it. In a really weird way, I just wanted to film her. There was no objective in mind and maybe that’s what helped get me through the door.
through a looking glass
Finally, she called me. She was playing a couple of shows in London and she said I could come out if I wanted. That first night I was filming backstage and, man, it was stressful. Patti is so intense. You just don’t know how to approach her. People get intimidated by her quite easily because they don’t know what she might say or do. And the band was wary of me. There’s a scene in the film from that night, when Patti waves her hand at me and says, “Okay, you can stop filming now.” The guitarist, Lenny Kaye, is walking through the frame and he’s looking at the camera from the corner of his eye and you can see he’s got this attitude like . . . be careful. The next morning Lenny walked up to me, looked at me and said, “Who are you?” Do you know how lucky you are?” It was humbling.
down the rabbit hole
I wanted the film to be almost an extension of Patti’s mind. And her mind is intense. It’s abstract. Provocative. She doesn’t stop thinking for a moment. She speaks so poetically in the narration, that I think the film can almost function as if you’re reading “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” In a scene, she can be sitting in her bedroom in New York, holding up her old childhood dress, and then, poof, we get transported to her childhood home. In another segment, when she’s putting on the record of “Radio Baghdad,” a song about the war in Iraq, it is a very present moment. And then again, bing, you’re suddenly in Washington, D.C., watching her at a massive protest against the war. The only way I was able to make all that feel organic was to have had the time to be there.
Patti improvised the narration. I think it’s both complex and accessible. That’s her. I mean, she’s able to talk about the subtleties of her appreciation for de Kooning by making a chickenpox analogy.
The structure of the film is very much in keeping with a quote of Patti’s: “Life is not some vertical or horizontal line. You have your own internal world and it’s not neat.” That’s the way she thinks. It’s the way I think as well. So this is not some talking heads biopic or a standard rockumentary. It’s something different.
This film jumps around in time and space, but I hope never so much that it confuses the message. If I am to be a herald for the punk poet prophet, I want to speak clearly.
After 11 years of shooting, Patti and I decided to stop. We are ready. This is the time. She’s got great momentum. There’s the new album, Twelve. And, after nine previous nominations, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. It was awesome to be there and to hear all these well-known rock legends pay homage to Patti.
I want to move people. I remember this one guy who was at an early screening of the film. He just sat there and seemed sort of stunned after it was over. “I’ve been wasting my life,” he said. “I’ve got to do something.”
I hope that this film stirs the desire in people to pay more attention to our world or to be motivated to feed their minds with books, music, culture, art, history… I want Patti Smith: Dream of Life to inspire people to do something.
— Steven Sebring, Filmmaker