Patti Smith: Dream of Life

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The Sundance Film Festival, held annually in the snowy and comfortably gilded confines of Park City, Utah, is about the last place one expects to find rock musician Patti Smith.

More than three decades removed from the release of her first album, "Horses," the woman Rolling Stone magazine called "Punk's Poet Laureate" is not one for swag bags or snowball fights with Paris Hilton.

Smith is a serious woman, with a serious curriculum vitae. She is considered by some to be the seminal female performance artist of her generation — at once a poet, guitar hero, accomplished painter and photographer.

Like her hero Bob Dylan, she disappeared from the public eye at a time when her public most desired another glimpse. Smith's return, after the death of husband Fred "Sonic" Smith in 1994, was kicked off by a stint on tour with "The Jester" himself.

She paid her unlikely visit to Park City on the week of Sundance to talk about and promote a new documentary "Patti Smith: Dream of Life."

The film, shot and produced during more than 11 years by fashion photographer Steven Sebring, offers an off-center, often-shambling ride through the mind of a woman who draws strength from French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the punk pioneer band The Ramones in equal parts.

In a discussion with Peter Travers, host of ABC News Now's "Popcorn," Smith seemed overwhelmed by the breadth of her experience.

"I'm a mother and I'm a writer," she said. "I take photographs, I'm a performer, I have a band. I have responsibilities — you know, we protested the strike on Iraq, so there is [an] activist [at] work."

The movie, which is light on concert footage, regards Smith's day-to-day life as art in its own right.

"There is hopefully an innate spirituality throughout the whole film," Smith said, "so I think it certainly presents a more well-rounded picture of me then seeing a concert film … because it's not a rock 'n' roll film, it's not a concert film, it's a humanistic film."

The decision to allow a camera and the man behind it into her life was not easy. Smith met Sebring through friend and REM singer Michael Stipe in 1995, the year she came out of professional retirement to resurrect a career put on hold by marriage and a new family.

"My children liked Sebring right away," Smith said. "He's got huge amounts of energy, he's supportive, and he came into my life seeing me as a mother. … Then he came to see me perform and decided that I had many different sides."

Smith, known for her aversion to cameras despite being featured in the cover shot to "Horses" — one of the most famous rock 'n' roll photos of all time — explains that her willingness to grant Sebring such unrelenting access was due in large part to an unspoken promise of discretion.

"I allowed him to do this because our relationship was such that if I would have told him at the end of all those years, 'I don't want it out, just put in a vault,' he would have done so."

But in the end, Smith decided the film was so honest, so true to the way she perceives herself, that there was no reason to hide it from the public.

The title, she says, came from Smith, the former guitarist for Detroit band MC5. It was his death that pushed Smith back into performing — to support her children, she says — and his memory that colors the frames in the movie.

"The thing that made me most happy is that I feel the presence of my husband," Smith said. "He's not in the film, but you can hear him singing."

"Let go of your departed and continue life's celebration," the poet Allen Ginsburg told Smith after her husband died. The film, she says, "continues our life's celebration."

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