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Music

Watch rare footage of Patti Smith in 'West Side Stories' with Jonathan Miller

Patti Smith is an artist extraordinaire. And long may she continue to be such a creative virtuoso, whether it’s writing poetry, fronting a rock band, or in this case, acting in front of a camera. And when she acts, she brings the honesty, integrity, vitality and sense of vigour you find in the other areas of her trajectory as a person.

In other words, she was as truthful on the big screen as she was in the studio, which was fitting because her work stemmed from such a vulnerable and fragile place, both as an artist and a woman.

This is the artist at her most peculiarly, bizarrely weird. A barbed retort opens, and the acting interpolations are off. Taking the decidedly un-commercial route to paint a conversation between two disparate voices speaking under one odd banner, Smith throws herself further into the Biblical terrain. It´s not entirely original (Tim Rice had written an entire libretto about the pair in the delicious Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)), but it´s definitely distinctive in that it shows two odd artists discussing their views on life.

It’s not lo-fi drama, but there is definitely something more naturalistic about this track than anything we´ve seen yet in Smith’s illustrious career. If Cher is the heartthrob, Barbra Streisand the bona fide soul diva, Julie Andrews the credible leading actress, then Patti Smith must be the greatest method singer cum actor of her generation.

She is to America what Kate Bush and Siouxis Sioux are to England and Enya is to Ireland: a reliable face, a strong actor, a reliable figure and an asset to whatever project she is working on. There’s something distinctly vulnerable about the singer in this more intimate orbit, just as there is something fragile about the character in this place of fusion.

For three generations of viewers, Patti Smith has accrued something as vigorous and fatalistic as David Bowie was during the 1970s. The singer came to prominence relatively later in her life, but that gave her the opportunity to understand who she was in life.

From that moment on, everything she did – whether it was acting, performing, singing or writing – came from a place of great understanding and pathos.

The footage in question also features Jonathan Miller, a theatre director par excellence, and she finds herself in a place of great contemplation. It’s similar to Al Pacino facing off Lee Strasberg in The Godfather Part II: Two idiosyncratic artists understanding that there’s more at stake than the conversation in front of them.

Hopefully, Smith will return to the cameras in the future, but for the moment, this is a strong indication of the actor at her most impressive, inventive and incisive.