PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE. 10 tonight, Channel 12.
IF IT'S just-the-facts-ma'am biography you're after, you could learn more about Patti Smith from her Wikipedia entry than you're likely to glean from "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," a film about the punk icon from South Jersey that premieres tonight on PBS' "POV."
But if "Dream," which caps the documentary series' 22nd season - and is airing on Smith's 63rd birthday - is as much a meandering journey through the artist's mind as through her history, that mind is at least an interesting place to kick around in.
And Smith, who spent 11 years, on and off, being filmed and followed by first-time director Steven Sebring, does offer a few tidbits at the beginning.
She was born, for instance, in Chicago, after which her family moved to Philadelphia.
"In 1957," she recalls in the film, "we moved to rural South Jersey, across from the square-dance hall. . . . In 1967, I left for New York City, I met [photographer] Robert Mapplethorpe, in 1969, I moved to the Chelsea Hotel."
Not surprisingly, those early years in Philadelphia - where she attended elementary school in Germantown - and in Deptford Township, N.J., get short shrift.
There's footage of a much younger Smith, talking about how she'd found "fairyland right inside myself" because New York "let me."
"When I lived in South Jersey or whatever, there was no time for daydreaming," she says.
"And life was simpler there. You weren't hassled, you didn't have people trying to hold you up, or goose you and stuff like that. But that's all there was. There was no chance for extension. There was no chance to be destroyed or really be creative there. You just lived. And that's OK for some people, but I always felt something different stirring in me. And that's like why I came here. Because I knew there was stuff inside me that could, like, flower. Maybe it would really ruin me. Maybe I'd feel really s----- about it. But at least it would come out. There was no place for it to surface [in Jersey]."
Sebring, a fashion photographer who met Smith at a shoot in 1995 and asked if he could film her, told reporters last summer that he didn't originally envision the project as a documentary.
"Filmmaking is expensive," he said. "I was just gathering and documenting footage of her, just getting to know Patti."
It wasn't until eight or nine years into the process, after he got a call from someone expressing interest in the project, that he began to think of it as a potential film.
Smith, for her part, seemed happy enough with how it turned out (though she's seen in the film making fun of the length of time the project's taking).
"At that time in my life, it was very accurate," the performer, who'd just returned from touring Japan with her band, told reporters.
"I mean, it was shot really between the ages of 50 to 60 years old and it reflects my lifestyle, my relationship with my children, my mom and dad, the things that I was involved in, protesting the policies of the Bush administration, pursuing writing, and, you know, making new friends, being encouraged by old friends. So I would say it was a pretty accurate picture."
When it was suggested that it seemed as if music were only a part of her life, she agreed.
"Especially rock and roll," she said. "I mean, most people that really get to know me know that what I listen to most of the time is Glenn Gould and Maria Callas. So I think that, you know, performance is very important to me. But it's like a hand. You know, you really value this finger, but there are four other ones."
One, at least, might be devoted to family, Smith having taken a break from public life from about 1979 until the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, in 1994, left her with a son and daughter to provide for.
Before that, "I wanted them to know me simply as their mother," she said. "And both of my kids will tell you that that's what they think of me, as their mom. The rest of it, they find perhaps interesting or amusing, but I'm mom first. And it wasn't easy. Being a mother requires a lot of sacrifice, you know, cooking and cleaning and nursing and washing diapers and scrubbing floors and teaching children to pray and hopefully be good citizens. It's a full-time job, and I was devoted to it," even as she found time to work on poetry and on songs with her husband.
There are plenty of Smith's performances in the film, but "I never told Steven what part of my life to center on. It was really Steven who made the choice. It's really Steven's film. I didn't tell him to focus on poetry or to make certain that we have anti-war rallies. He just became part of what we did, and he made the choices as to what areas interested him. And that's one of the nice things about our collaboration. Someone else might have gravitated all toward rock and roll, which is perhaps more accessible. But Steven had no - he had no design in what he gravitated for. He went for everything." *