Filmmaker Brendan Toller takes a look at a new documentary, Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, that captures the power of Smith’s debut album, forty years after its release
Since 1996, we have witnessed the two-decade resurrection of Patti Smith (go on, make the “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” joke). After the release of Wave in 1979, Patti married Fred Sonic Smith of the MC5 and Sonic Rendezvous Band, raised two children in the Detroit area and reemerged in the musical sphere in 1988 with the Dream of Life album featuring a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph on the front cover.
Just eight months after Dream of Life’s release, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti’s New York City artistic and spiritual soul conspirator died of HIV/AIDs related causes. In June 1990, Patti’s piano player Richard Sohl also died of HIV/AIDS. In November 1994, Fred Sonic Smith died of heart failure. A month later, Patti’s brother, Todd, died of a heart attack.
Weaker souls may have tread into the abyss. But Patti’s collective art in the rock ‘n’ roll realm (music, image, poetry, performance, visual art) instills the message of personal, political and musical freedom. What with the cyclical onslaught of corruption, lies and conservatism to come our way, the world needed Patti Smith, and she needed to redefine hers.
Enter Michael Stipe and Allen Ginsberg, the respective patron saints of bohemia, who encouraged Patti to start performing again. Gradually, albums and tours followed with support slots for Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Patti’s band performed a three and a half hour set on the closing night of CBGB. In 2005, Patti was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
But 2010 would prove to be Patti’s banner year, with the publishing of Just Kids, an intimate coming-of-age Greenwich Village tale of her first years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe. The book would win the National Book Award for nonfiction, and subversively assimilate a starry-eyed audience of all ages that never once considered Patti’s uncompromising rock ‘n’ roll, ever. Eyes and ears were now primed.
So, it is with perfect sensibility that Patti Smith and her band have collaborated with filmmaker Steven Sebring to present a new concert film aptly titled Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band. The film premiered April 23, 2018 at the Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre for a one-time theatrical event. The evening included a short live set from Patti Smith & band with cameos by Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe. The film was released May 22, 2018 and is available for streaming on Apple Music. Record mogul Jimmy Iovine, who produced Patti Smith’s third album Easter and most-recognized hit “Because the Night,” served as Executive Producer (usually reads: paid for) on the film.
Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band captures Patti & band’s 40th anniversary performances of their debut album Horses. Two sold-out shows were filmed January 8-9, 2016 at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles where the band tackled the album in sequence. Sebring is certainly no stranger to Smith’s world. In 1995, Michael Stipe suggested Patti be photographed by Sebring in anticipation of her return to music. In 2009, Patti told Anthony DeCurtis, “With the death of Robert Mapplethorpe, I had lost my main collaborator in taking photographs. So I didn’t know who to work with…One day a knock came at my door, and when I opened it, there was Steven. He’s been like a brother ever since.”
Photography sessions turned to film sessions, evolving into Dream of Life, a ten-year feature film portrait, more steeped in still-life painting than traditional documentary. The film documents Patti’s return to New York City from Detroit, her recovery from deep loss, role as a mother, artist and activist. In 2008, Dream of Life won a Sundance Award Excellence in Cinematography and received a Primetime Emmy nomination. The film (truly, shot on mostly 16mm and Super 8) gives viewers an extremely personal glimpse – an abstract, waking experience of Patti’s perspective, art and surroundings. Musical performances are interspersed, not the main feature.
Trailer for Dream of Life:
In Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, Sebring and Patti offer the other side of the coin — a stark, simple, multi-camera feature shot on HD video with subdued saturation and steel blue hue. Shots linger on Patti’s movements, inflections, snarling and spitting. The packed intergenerational crowd is referenced, often doting on celebrities like Carrie Brownstein and Ellen Page. The film retains Sebring’s intimate access seen in Dream of Life, beginning with backstage snapshots of Patti warming her voice and brushing her teeth, Lenny Kaye strumming the guitar, King Tuff & Flea’s eyes lovingly transfixed, seated like two well-behaved, but excited kids on the standard green-room leather couch.
Anniversary shows are often riddled with the problem of how a band wears its age. The beautiful sound mix (hey, it’s a live album too) opens the door to modern-day arrangements that suit the band; nuances are drawn out, grooves are planted deeper. Horses is an album with juxtaposed movements: from unbridled joy to simmering moments of restraint; peaks, valleys. In this film the Side A performance climaxes at “Birdland” (of all tracks) with Patti and Lenny Kaye reaching an orgiastic burst of vocal bellows and guitar swirl. Patti begins the Side B stretch of the concert by adopting her beatnik-schtick describing the ritual of flipping the record. Please Kill Me pal Michael Des Barres is seen in the audience raising his arms howling at Patti’s explanation of the song “Break It Up,” written about a dream she had about unleashing the spirit and soul of Jim Morrison from a statue. The band tears into their version of The Who’s “My Generation.” For which Patti charges at the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old lyrics with “Hope I live till I get old, and I am old, and I’m only going to get older motherfuckers.”
While its not nice to mention a woman’s age, the New York City punks who came to be in the 70’s are now reaching their 70’s, and thinking Legacy. Just Kids has prompted a fever of downtown memoirs, biopics, television shows (Patti is reportedly working on one herself for Showtime), museum exhibitions, archive acquisitions. Sebring and co. have done history a favor by preserving the power and weight of a Patti Smith live performance for curious generations, as her persona grows larger.
Patti’s shows wind from challenging to cathartic, funny to devastating, poetic to political. It’s a punk Brechtian intervention that gives one a sense of duty and obligation to make the world a better place. This vibe has long been hijacked by popular bands of the 80s and 90s, who were no doubt ringside to Patti’s Lollapalooza performances. Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band represents a homecoming of sorts, that the beguiling American punk goddess now turned household name still has that natural artist grit to turn ugliness into beauty, weakness into power, and the indefinable into the sublime.
Trailer for Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band:
She broke down the barrier
between audience and stage
House Security versus
in Florence, Italy can’t be wrong
Ask the angels who they’re calling, go ask the angels if they’re calling to thee, ask the angels why they’re falling, who that person could possibly be
looking out into the sea of people
Piss Factory in rearview