Film Review: Why You Should See Elliott Smith Documentary “Heaven Adores You”

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When considering the legacy Elliott Smith has accumulated in this day and age as a sadsack guy who wrote sadsack songs, one might expect a documentary about him produced in this day and age to be like 90 minutes of ceaseless malaise and depression not seen since “Dear Zachary”. But from just a single viewing of “Heaven Adores You”, the Elliott Smith documentary that’s been lighting up film festivals across the world for about a year now, it’s very obvious that the producers and stars of this film had truthful portrayals of the late singer-songwriter in the cards as opposed to false revisionism for a cheap, defaming thrill, showing us the shrillest highs and lowest lows of his professional career in an honest and caring way.

This remarkable film was lovingly directed by Nickolas Rossi, and produced by Jeremiah Gurzi, Kevin Moyer and Marc Smolowitz. It’s a brutally honest look into the life of this brilliant musician and somewhat complicated human being.  To hear his family and friends describe him and their own unique relationships with him was a pleasant addition to the film. The creators of the project took great care and found the people that knew Smith best, conducting over 30 on-screen interviews to help reconstruct Smith’s life for the film. Participants in the film include Smith’s sister Ashley, former bandmates and collaborators Jon Brion, Larry Crane, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Rob Schnapf, Kill Rock Stars’ Slim Moon, and others.

“Heaven Adores You” is really the first comprehensive film about Smith’s life and music; especially his music – The 1 hour and 44 minute documentary is packed full of tracks by the prolific singer/songwriter. Some of it is his more popular material but  some of it was unreleased and largely unheard before this film.

Next month will mark one year since the film premiered to rave reviews at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It has since gone on to screen at 35+ film festivals on 4 continents, including AFI Docs, DOC NYC, Melbourne International Film Festival, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, CPH: Dox, among others.

With clips of interviews, live shows, music videos, as well as interviews with close friends, family and affiliates of Smith’s, we’re walked through Elliott’s musical life, from the early days of Heatmiser to his final moments with the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill, on an album-by-album basis, as we’re given big and small insights into his life and the various detours he took on the road of stardom. The film is an inspiring and earnest look at the somewhat dismal rise and fall of one of Portland’s greatest musicians who ever lived, and could be enjoyed both by long-time fans of Smith’s music, as well as aspiring musicians who want an unabridged, ingenuous look at how long and winding one musician’s walk of life could be.

In the beginning of the film Elliott poignantly exclaims during an interview that he’s perhaps the wrong kind of person to become famous. The film does a great job of capturing what we expect to be the real Elliott Smith, he is not posturing or posing. At times he appears to let people in but at other times he seems like a troubled soul experiencing a type of pain that the rest of us will never understand. That is perhaps most evident as he is asked certain redundant questions during  interviews, which later in the movie, it’s clear that he only did the interviews and touring so he could write and record music, which is what made him closest to whole.

In one part of the film he stops playing a song abruptly, he states to the camera that he’d played that song hundreds of times and was sick of it and exchange was indicative of the entire film. That was as honest as a human being can get right there.

The film focuses on Smith’s life in the three cities he lived in during his music career and just a little of his life before Oregon. Since most of Smith’s legacy was built around his days in Portland, a great deal of time is spent on that portion of the tale. From railroad tracks, to the Willamette River and to back alleys, the footage offers many different views of Portland and they made sure to portray it in just the way that Elliott likely did.  Little time was spent on the New York and then Los Angeles part of his story but the story did include his beginnings in Texas followed by the mysterious move to Oregon while in his teens. The film never does disclose why he moved away but Smith’s sister Ashley did mention that his dad sent him an apologetic letter, later in life, in an attempt to bury the hatchet.

A majority of the shooting took place in 2012 with Rossi, Gurzi, and Moyer traveling to Portland, Los Angeles, Texas and New York. By the fall of 2013 longtime colleague and Academy Award nominated producer Marc Smolowitz officially joined the team, helping steward the project through post-production and to a prominently placed world premiere at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival.

As Smith’s life began to take darker turns, he appears to be shutting out those that were closest to him. His friends describe him turning into a senior citizen looking guy in a short period of time in his last few years on this planet. The saying goes that humans tend to hurt the ones we love the most and it held true in Elliott’s life. In those later years an intervention was scheduled to try and reach him and the film’s participants state that after that happened he began writing different. His newer songs seemed to point at those people, whereas perhaps before that he would speak of hypothetical people and situations.

Whatever those inner demons were, he could not or would not conquer them and didn’t ask for the right kind of help to have someone else help him. His death remains a mystery as he died from to stab wounds to the chest in Los Angeles in 2003.

If you are a fan of Elliott Smith, Portland or the human condition you most certainly will love this movie and we highly recommend experiencing it.

(Additional words by Jess Casebeer.)

 

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About Glen Casebeer