Over ten years in the making, photographer Steven Sebring's B&W documentary portrait of the high-priestess of NYC punk-rock and poetry offers myriad views of a fascinating, multi-faceted woman -- a rock and roll icon if ever there was one. But thanks to its meandering, achronological structure, we don't learn too many specifics of Smith's brilliant career, and only a die-hard fan will find all of it vitally interesting.
Born in Chicago and raised in working-class southern New Jersey, Smith came to New York City in 1967 in hopes of becoming a poet, preferably one who wielded a guitar like her idols, Jim Morrison, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan. Smith hung out in front of Max's Kansas City, befriending up-and-comers like playwright Sam Shepard and her close companion and roommate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; she formed a band and found her audience at the Bowery's legendary CBGB before recording a series of acclaimed albums, including her landmark Horses. In 1980, Smith married Fred "Sonic" Smith of the legendary MC5; they retired to a town north of Detroit and raised two kids, Jesse and Jackson. And then came a brutal string of tragedies: Mapplethorpe died of AIDS 1989, and Smith's long-time keyboardist Richard Sohl succumbed two years later. In 1994, Smith's brother, Todd, died suddenly and a month later, Fred Smith suffered a fatal heart attack. But rather than break under the weight of such overwhelming grief, Smith took her friend Allen Ginsberg's advice to "let go of the spirits of the departed and continue with [her] life's celebration."
Focusing as it does on Smith's return to New York City and her still-ongoing recording career, much of Sebring's film is a moving testament to spiritual strength and emotional recovery. Eschewing the conventional chronologicaly, Sebring opts for an impressionistic approach that juxtaposes film of an unbelievably young Smith on the streets of New York City in the early 70s and recent footage of her backstage before a concert, consciously mimicking Bob Dylan hailing a cab for her own DON'T LOOK BACK. Much of the film feels like a hodge-podge travelogue as Sebring's camera follows Smith on her far-flung world travels, from the markets of Jaffa to the Ardennes graveside of her favorite poete maudit, Arthur Rimbaud. Interspersed throughout are scenes of Smith at home, tucked away in a corner and combing through the detritus of a most unusual life -- among her possessions is a small Persian urn containing a handful of Mapplethorpe's ashes -- and over the more abstract moments, Smith reads from her own poetry. The best parts come when Smith's unexpectedly mischievous personality is allowed to shine through the posture -- she's very quick to smile and a terrific teller of jokes and humorous anecdotes. The lesser moments are indulgences on Sebring's part: Long, arty shots of the brooding poet as poses in a doorway or skulks along the beach at Coney Island -- images that play into the common conception of Smith and now feel like unenlightening cliches.
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- Released: 2008
- Review: Over ten years in the making, photographer Steven Sebring's B&W documentary portrait of the high-priestess of NYC punk-rock and poetry offers myriad views of a fascinating, multi-faceted woman -- a rock and roll icon if ever there was one. But thanks to it… (more)