At the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan on Monday night, Patti Smith opened for Patti Smith. After the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Steven Sebring’s concert film Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, the screen rose to reveal Smith and said band launching into her incantatory 1979 single “Dancing Barefoot.” Before her next song, a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” that stripped the protest anthem of its hippie hokeyness, she praised the teenage gun-control activists from Parkland and urged the crowd to keep fighting. Then some guy in the balcony started screaming, and she defused the situation by asking if he needed the bathroom, advising that when she had to pee but couldn’t find a toilet, she simply sought out the nearest tin can.
Surprise appearances from Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe came later in the evening, like generous parting gifts, but it was during this early portion of the show that Smith achieved Peak Patti. Spiritual, political, earnest, funny, unapologetically idiosyncratic, surprisingly pithy, and fiercely present, she may be an even more captivating band leader at 71 than she was in her youth. Somehow, though, her talents as a performer barely enter into her late-career mythos. Because she’s now so famous for her 1970s New York memoir, Just Kids, and her status as a patron saint of bohemians, it is possible to adore a version of Smith that has nothing to do with her music.
As if to map the distance between Patti the icon and Patti the artist, a fictionalized version of the former made her world premiere at Tribeca the day before the Horses event. Smith is a character in Mapplethorpe, a shallow biopic of provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe from filmmaker Ondi Timoner (of the great Brian Jonestown Massacre/Dandy Warhols doc Dig!) that was informed in part by Patricia Morrisroe’s controversial biography. But Smith plays a smaller role in the film than anyone who read about her 22-year relationship with Mapplethorpe in Just Kids might expect.
As written by Timoner and portrayed by relative newcomer Marianne Rendón, the gay artist’s girlfriend-turned-best-friend is all choppy hair, New Jersey accent, and charming bluntness, the archetypal carefree proto-punk. The film shows Patti urging Robert (Matt Smith) to break away from his rigid Catholic parents and talking the couple’s way into a room at the Chelsea Hotel, framing her as just another useful admirer he used and discarded. She has no interiority, and her own art is window dressing. After about half an hour, she’s gone, only to reappear for one scene near the end, when Mapplethorpe is dying of AIDS, to nurse him and soothe his tortured soul.
Timoner’s stylish, earthy yet angelic Patti reflects the way Smith’s image has been flattened in the popular imagination. Like Joan Didion, she has been marketed in the 21st century as an Instagram hashtag, a face to adorn tote bags, and an ethereal downtown spirit guide (even as the old Chelsea is literally being sold for parts), when what really deserves attention is the power of Smith’s music, particularly her live performances. Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band is a necessary corrective to that narrative.
There’s nothing extraordinary about the concert film’s structure. Sebring, who took a long view of Smith’s life and career in 2008’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life, simply documents a pair of dates she played at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre in January 2016. Capping off a tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of her classic debut, Horses, Smith and her bandmates (including longtime collaborators like guitarist Lenny Kaye as well as her son Jackson) perform the entire album in order. Midway through the set, she holds up the LP and ever-so-slowly narrates the process of flipping from side A to side B, interrupting the gag to poke fun at herself when she realizes that she’s forgotten to remove the record from its sleeve.
Interspersed with the songs are a few behind-the-scenes vignettes from the Horses tour: Outside a café, a young French fan gives Smith some of his poetry to read, and she exhorts him that if he wants to be a great writer, he has to work hard at it. Shooing the camera away as she retreats into a bathroom adorned with Frank Zappa’s famous toilet poster, she quips, “I’m gonna have some frank moments with Frank.” Although the 77-minute film might have benefited from a few more of these scenes, Sebring chooses his offstage footage wisely, capturing the singular combination of seriousness, goofiness, and erudition that gives Smith’s songs and performance style such authenticity.
Of course, the real magic happens onstage. In high-contrast close-ups that illuminate Smith’s wild white hair, Sebring captures her leading the heretic mass that is “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” and fighting to ascend, arms and eyes raised to the heavens, at the climax of the epic “Birdland.” She shouts the three-part Burroughsian suite “Land” in a voice like a serrated knife, seemingly near tears by the end. (A rendition of the song after the movie, featuring a jab at GMO giant Monsanto among other topical asides, felt just as raw.) Joined by Flea for an energetic cover of the Who’s “My Generation,” which appears as a bonus track on several reissues of Horses, she tweaks a few lines: “Hope I live until I get old! And I’m fuckin’ old!”
Most captivating of all is Smith’s face, which registers the bliss and ardor and ferocity—all of the great rock’n’roll moods—in songs that apparently mean as much to her now as they did when she wrote them. By updating her lyrics and introducing a track like “Elegie,” written as a requiem for Jimi Hendrix, with a list of all the visionaries we’ve lost since his death, she keeps her compositions vital. There are artists who halfheartedly tour their early albums for money, and then there’s Patti, who doesn’t seem capable of phoning in a single note.
That doesn’t make her a saint or a mascot; it makes her a real, electrifying, flesh-and-blood rock star, who everyone who only knows her from Just Kids should rearrange their lives to see in concert. Go for the sure-to-be-transcendent performance, stay for the moment when some neanderthal yells “Take it off!” and Patti Smith doesn’t miss a beat before shouting back, “Honey, I’ve got better in the grave than you.”
Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band will stream on Apple Music starting May 22.