Smith's worshipful fans - who include Michael Stipe, Bono, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead, all of whom appear in the movie - will be delighted by fashion photographer Sebring's largely black-and-white film. It follows Smith to the graves of poets William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud, to concert stages around the world, and to her parents' house in Deptford, where her father, Grant, explains that he lost his hearing in one ear listening to his daughter play at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby.
Non-devotees, however, might find the dreamy Dream of Life frustrating, for it mirrors Smith's nonlinear career path by avoiding almost all the expected moves of an artist bio doc. There is voice-over narration by Smith herself, but no talking head pontification by any of the noted personages who turn up on camera. Those include guitarist Tom Verlaine and playwright Sam Shepard to Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who, for some reason or other, joins Smith for a walk on the beach and a strange one-upsmanship conversational duel involving tales of public urination.
Instead, Dream of Life, which Sebring began shooting in 1996, shortly after Smith returned to performing following the death of her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, takes an impressionistic approach. So, Smith is just as likely to be seen looking at a favorite childhood dress and confessing her poor skills as a laundress ("I don't use bleach") as she is to be telling of her crush on the late author William S. Burroughs ("He used to say to me, 'My dear, I am a homosexual' ").
That means Dream of Life often meanders and doesn't bother with the biographical data Sebring correctly assumes his audience already knows. It also means that the movie captures plenty of fleeting moments of arresting beauty. Like when Smith sings along with Nat "King" Cole's "Stardust" as her car rolls through the fog, or when she reads charismatically Allen Ginsberg's poem "On Cremation of Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara," which nicely encapsulates her own artistic essence with its closing words: "I noticed the sea. I noticed the music. I wanted to dance."
- Dan DeLuca