“Can’t mess with a 69-year-old broad!” announces Patti Smith in her new concert film Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, and though it’s a follow-up to rather a devastating burn on an audience member who dares holler “take it off” when she futzes with her vest (“Oh, yeah for you, right– honey, I got better in the grave than you”), it also has feels like a mission statement for the movie – and, frankly, for its subject. Horses, which premiered last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, catches the rock legend two years ago, during their 40th anniversary performance of the seminal title album at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. And then they took the stage afterwards, making it quite clear that you can’t mess with a 71-year-old broad either.
The film, directed by Steven Sebring (who also helmed the 2008 documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life) finds the band performing the album in sequence, complete with a side-change announcement by Ms. Smith (“Now you have to turn the record, place it on the turntable… bring the arm gently toward the vinyl to the groove… and play side B!”). There are the briefest of off-stage cinematic interludes between songs, and some stage patter between others (“There’s a part in this song for you to sing it.” “WE LOVE YOU!” “Well if you love me, you’ll fuckin’ sing it!”).
But the main focus is the show – sometimes a concert, sometimes a poetry reading, sometimes a revival meeting, sometimes an exorcism. She’s no longer the iconoclastic punk she was when Horses hit record stores; she’s aged, and she’s calmed. But she’s not calm. The intensity that has characterized her work hasn’t gone anywhere.
And thus the songs still pulse with the energy of their origination; these do not sound like “oldies,” though they are older now than rock itself was when they were released. Over the course of the 77-minute film, Smith and the band perform the whole record, from “Gloria” to “Elegie,” the latter including the names of more recently departed (including Mapplethorpe, Lou Reed, the Ramones, Joe Strummer, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winhouse) chanted like incantations. As an encore, they perform an electrifying cover of “My Generation” (with special guest Flea) – with Smith putting a new spin on the whole “before I grow old” business.
Throughout the film, Sebring’s camera nicely captures not only the driving momentum of the show, but the flourishes of Smith’s shamanistic stage style: the way she stomps her feet, the way she moves her hands, the wicked way she delivers the final “but not mine” at the end of “Gloria.” Sebring plucks out some interesting visuals, but he mostly (and wisely) focuses on the best landscape a filmmaker could ask for: Patti’s face, summoning up all the raw emotion and lived history of these songs, up to her final instructions to her audience: “Be strong! Be ugly! Be free!”
After the screening, Tribeca viewers got a treat: a six-song live set from Smith and the band. So we heard “Horses” itself live, plus some of the faves from other albums – “Dancing Barefoot,” “Pissin’ in a River,” that kinda thing. They performed a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” preceded by her passionate endorsement of the Florida teens: “These are the times that try men’s souls, and every single fucking day what they do in Washington tries our souls. But parallel to that, we have five students who magnified millions. The Parkland Five and millions of young people are the hope of this fucking planet! We have to be with them, pray with them, march with them, their cause is ours, their cause is our future!”
And then Bruce Springsteen came out – after all, it was a Monday night, his Broadway show was dark, might as well – to sing “Because the Night” as a duet, and an entire theater lost their minds. And then Michael Stipe came out, just to sing along with the chorus of “People Have the Power,” and dance a bit. And then we were all launched back into the universe, as if we could live the rest of our night like this, aware that musical legends could just magically appear out of the ether. God bless this film festival, folks.
“Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band” will debut on Apple Music on Tuesday, May 22. The Tribeca Film Festival runs through Sunday in New York. Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire,