BERLIN (Reuters) - Patti Smith hates labels, but if you had to choose a phrase to describe the singer, poet, political activist and painter, it might be Renaissance woman.
An intimate documentary about her life and work made over 12 years shows the 61-year-old artist veer from reflective commentator who ruminates on politics, family and death, to intense performer who sheds tears and spits with rage on stage.
Made by Steven Sebring, the mostly black-and-white “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” gets unusually close to its subject. Experimental camera work and editing makes for a fittingly unconventional portrait of one of the pioneers of punk music.
“It’s not a rock ‘n’ roll film, it’s not a concert film, it’s a humanistic film,” Smith told reporters on Saturday after the movie was screened at the Berlin Film Festival.
Sebring, who became a close friend of Smith’s over the long filming period, said recording her became “like a drug.” He amassed so much footage that editing took over a year.
“It was a hard film to tame,” he said.
Smith was asked whether she liked being labeled as a punk rocker by the media.
“I have, since my first record, said right on the record that I was beyond labels, beyond gender, independent, and I don’t like to be called any label.
“Every time you see a journalist that calls me a punk rocker, it’s because they don’t have the imagination or the professional intelligence or the curiosity or see the full breadth of what I’ve done.”
Sebring captures a touching visit to her parents, concert footage old and new, Smith at protest rallies and on trips to Japan and Jerusalem, backstage preparations, reflections alone in her chaotic apartment and visits to friends’ graves.
Death looms throughout the one hour, 50-minute film, but with little trace of morbidity. At one point Smith pours the ashes of a friend into her palm and at another speaks movingly about her brother and how his death affected her.
“I regularly visit graves,” Smith told reporters. “Tomorrow, I’m going to visit Bertolt Brecht’s grave. I like going to visit people’s graves — I find it comforting. I know so many people who are gone, I like the proximity of something of them there.”
Smith was born in Chicago in 1946 and in the late ‘60s moved to New York where she frequented fashionable nightclubs and befriended musicians and photographers.
She sang in a band and enjoyed a cult following that was reinforced by her first album “Horses,” released in 1975, which subsequently inspired many big names in rock.
“Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” named after the 1988 album “Dream of Life,” joins Smith in the late 1990s as she prepares to return to the stage to tour with idol Bob Dylan after 16 years out of the limelight.
Early reviews of the film have been glowing.
“She’s writing for young poets who years from now may be inspired by this beautiful record of her life’s work,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter.