The walruses have washed up on a beach in Alaska. There is nowhere else for them to go. It will become one of the most iconic images of our planet on the brink of a massive shift in its eco system, otherwise known as climate change. Though Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was cloaked heavily in religion and smeared by the Fundamentalist Christians who felt it not faithful enough to scripture, the one important message from the film is that it is up to us to fix this mess. We are probably too late.
I spoke with Patti Smith, whose Mercy Is marks the first time she has written a song for any film. When she heard Aronofsky was making Noah, Smith approached the director and eventually asked if she could write the song (with her longtime writing partner).
She’s Patti Smith, of course, and this wasn’t going to be a subtle undertaking. She threw herself into the world of Noah, read scriptures, watched every Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins film. She knew that this was a story of a story and her song would be that story passed down through the generations. If Noah leaves us with any resonating memory it’s this: Mercy is as mercy does.
She reads and appreciates the teachings of Jesus and is evolved enough, and curious enough as a human being to immerse herself in the scripture without getting bogged down on the notion of whether she is a “believer” or not. It works just as well on a mythic and metaphoric level.
Russell Crowe was definitely the muse for Mercy Is. His intensity and passion not just in taking on the role of Noah but throughout his career was something that greatly impressed Smith. “It was such an honor to write a song for him,” she said.
Smith said this was the most disciplined singing she’s ever had to do. The performance of the song that plays at the end of the film was recorded live with the Kronos Quartet. She said Aronofsky was there when they recorded because this was such a personal film for him he really wanted to make sure every aspect was thought through. The only thing he asked Smith to change was invoking horses. He told her there weren’t any horses at the time.” So she substituted doves instead.
Singing with an orchestra, or a quartet, presented several challenges for the usually improvisational Smith. A tight vocal track laid down with specifics is not generally the way she sings. If you’re a fan of hers (to say I am a fan is to put it mildly) you know she feels her way through songs. But here, she tamed that infamous spirit with laser like focus. The song is sung by Crowe so it was important to Smith that he be able to sing it as well. He certainly does sing it well but no one sings it better than Smith.
Concern for the environment is what drove Smith to write the song and is at the heart of her concerns lately. “There is no greater cause for the human race right now,” she said. She believes that there is more urgency now than there ever has been and if any photo captured that urgency it’s this photo:
It was the first thing I brought up in the conversation and she knew immediately what I was talking about. It is an unimaginable horror to think that we’ve done nothing significant to stop the warming. Smith stops short of hopelessness. I did not reveal to her that I believe it’s too late. Aronofsky’s film is, to me, a telling of our fate. Smith is more hopeful. She is the last person to start imposing the ideals of her generation on future generations and she never laments how things change. She dives into that change like a charging wave. The newness of life is not something she fears.
When she talks about the environment or songwriting or her own vast and lengthy career it is with humility, which is probably the most unexpected thing about her. If there was ever was a legend who could play that card it would be her. But she doesn’t play it. If anything, she downplays it.
Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is going to be made into a film eventually but she sounded uncomfortable being asked the question — she said she wants to do it in her time, in her own way. She’s earned that right.
That I found myself actually speaking to Patti FUCKING Smith on the phone the other day was one of the most surreal moments of my life. Honestly, I had no business taking up this woman’s time. Sometimes I meet people in this crazy job I do and it presents nothing so much as silence. I have nothing to say. I just stare blankly out at the world and think: holy fucking shit. This was one of those times.
Seriously, how do you even begin to talk about Patti Smith? Upon hearing her voice I choked up. That is the bad part about reverence. “It’s okay,” she said. “I do the same thing.”
What a trip.
Smith is one of those rare bright stars, a whole human being who is nowhere near done. The skinny poet in a tongue lock with Sam Shepherd all of those years ago has made a career of vital storytelling through poetry and music. That she is anywhere near the Oscar race is a rare gift indeed.
So it isn’t even a worthy discussion to say Patti Smith should be Oscar nominated for Mercy Is. They really should just hand the woman the Oscar already. They will if they know what’s good for them. If they don’t, I am embarrassed for them.
Listen to Smith’s song here:
And a few of my favorite things about her: