Elliott Smith was a beautiful musician and the one of the best songwriters of his generation. He wrote bruised, delicate music that came off with the ease of a pop song that you couldn’t get out of your head — but the secret was its layers of complexity, from his guitar playing to his opaque lyrics to his lace curtain of a voice.
A musician who felt like Portland, Oregon’s own secret for years, he hit the mainstream once Gus Van Sant used his songs to soundtrack 1997’s Good Will Hunting. That moment in the spotlight culminated in a performance at the Oscars of his Best Original Song nominee “Miss Misery,” which introduced Smith to the world as a dirty angel, small and lank-haired in a white suit that didn’t fit, fated to lose to the endless bombast of Titanic‘s Celine Dion love theme, “My Heart Will Go On.”
Smith died in 2003, at the age of 34, of an apparent suicide in Los Angeles. He left a significant enough discography behind — five solo studio albums, two posthumous albums, not to mention the work with his earlier band Heatmiser. It’s enough of a legacy that there should be a documentary about him, right? At the least, for the fans, both current and future.
Sadly, Heaven Adores You, a Kickstarter-funded film (screening at DOC NYC this week) that bills itself as the first one to get access to Smith’s rare tracks — while also looking at the cities that shaped him and his music — may not be the documentary that Smith fans deserve. As someone with two ears and a heart, I’m a fan of Smith, I saw him several times at venues both teeny and small, and I found this movie inarticulate and frustrating.
The film bills itself as “experimental” and “intimate and meditative,” yet what this translates to is a fairly average rock documentary punctuated by endless slow-moving scenes of Portland with its conspicuous greenery, the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, while Smith’s “rare tracks” and voice-over from interviews with Smith and associates play.
It’s a delicate thing to make a movie about Elliott Smith. He was a guy who had his troubles — addiction, depression — and a bad movie might only dive into that part of the story, but he was also a smart, interesting, regular guy who made beautiful music. Heaven Adores You gives some of an idea of Smith’s personality, through what his friends and colleagues have to say, even though very little of it comes through in audio interviews with Smith, where he sounds shy and inarticulate, preferring to let the music talk. The film is at its most awake when there’s live footage of Smith performing — even through the layers, it’s still gripping and emotional — but mostly these clips cut off quickly.
The problem with the film is that the interviews driving it — Smith’s family, friends, his producers, and his colleagues — aren’t very interesting. Only Autumn De Wilde, a photographer who took many portraits of Smith during his career, has much of interest to say: “There was a life war across his face,” she notes, and it clashed with his music. His music has endured because he used “the words we couldn’t find when we were sad.”
It didn’t have to be this way, either. Pitchfork ran an oral history of Smith’s life and work last October, and it further illustrates that his cohorts can give good quotes, when an experienced journalist like Jayson Greene is doing the interviews. The interviews in Heaven Adores You, on the other hand, are rambling, inarticulate, and unrevealing — only finding some coherence when they’re talking about Smith’s downward spiral into addictive behaviors.
The filmmakers behind Heaven Adores You, including first-time director Nickolas Dylan Rossi, have an eye for cities. They have produced something that does show some of the complexities and difficulties in Smith’s life, but the film ultimately still feels ambling and unfinished, something that isn’t able to get a finger on what made Smith tick. Mostly, it’s a rock documentary that’s a beautiful canvas for aerial shots of Portland soundtracked by Smith rarities.
Heaven Adores You screens Saturday, November 15 and Thursday, November 20 at DOC NYC.