You will not learn any sordid, salacious details about Elliott Smith’s life or death in the new 104-minute Kickstarter-backed documentary Heaven Adores You, which has its East Coast premiere this weekend at the AFI DOCS festival in the Washington, DC area. While there’s presumably still interest in the more gossipy aspects of Smith’s life—which ended in 2003 with a stab wound to the chest and was never officially declared a suicide by the Los Angeles Department of Coroner, according to a 2011 report from OC Weekly —there’s likely even more interest in the music Smith left behind, some of which can be heard in the film for the first time.
While we know at the start that this is a sad story, director Nickolas Rossi’s film is ultimately celebratory, of Smith’s life, music, and spirit, taking viewers from his childhood in Texas, including his earliest bands, to his time in punk band Heatmiser in Portland to his eventual solo career, leading him to New York and Los Angeles. Rossi has the dual job of exposing Smith’s music to audiences who may only know his Oscar-nominated song “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting, to appeasing long-time fans eager to hear previously unreleased songs and feel, at least for a few minutes, a little closer to Smith.
Mostly, Rossi succeeds; we hear from Smith’s musical collaborators, including childhood friend Steve “Pickle” Pickering, whose tales of their earliest attempts at forming a band help set the stage for his eventual career, and Heatmiser member Tony Lash. The Portland section gives a sustained look at pre-fame Smith, as he was figuring out his place in his local music scene, and surprising those who knew him for his louder rock material with the quieter man-and-guitar numbers he become known for. (Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon likened this to Simon and Garfunkel.)
Of Smith’s decision to branch out as a solo artist, Moon says in the film, “It was just nerdy and uncool to put out a record under your name.” One of the most engaging interviewees is Autumn de Wilde, the photographer of his iconic Figure 8 album cover in Los Angeles neighborhood Silverlake. She shares some of the inspiration for that shoot, and offers up a version of Elliott Smith as colorful, whimsical and playful. Ross Harris, who directed Smith’s videos for “Coming Up Roses” and “Miss Misery,” also serves up several madcap stories that enliven the film.
There are several scenes that felt self-indulgent, where Rossi pans over lush greenery in Portland, or offers street shots in New York and Los Angeles, set against some of Smith’s most beloved songs. Yes, it’s an opportunity to relive those tunes, but seeing those cities as they are today doesn’t help us understand Smith’s relationship to them. From an otherwise tight film, I would have wanted those moments to be filled with more detail from those profiled.
While the breadth of subjects interviewed is welcome, from Smith’s friends and collaborators to his sister Ashley Welch, I occasionally wanted more in depth offerings from them. At one point, Smith’s ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme offers, “’Say Yes’ is beautiful. I wish the circumstances under which is was delivered were more ideal,” but we don’t get any follow up to put that statement in context. Then again, the film is more interested in his career than mining his personal relationships.
Those longtime fans who’ve been eager to hear more of Smith’s work will welcome the approximately 20 unreleased songs featured in the film, especially those from his younger years. Of selecting from Smith’s musical archives, Rossi told me, “There were a few songs that I would hear and immediately hear something in it that would've ended up as a published album song. You start to hear the workings of a guitar riff, a chord, something early and undeveloped, like a sketch—and you hear the beginnings of more well known popular song that we all know and love. All in all, it's unmistakably Elliott.”
Rossi said that in addition to giving those who were either too young to have seen him live or didn’t discover Smith’s music until after his death a chance to hear more of his work, his other goal “was to help shift the sad sack mythology around Elliott's life. I wanted to make something where the people who knew Elliott could reflect on their friendship with him.” This he achieves; Smith’s humor in the media interviews we hear in the film is dry, but certainly present, a counterpoint to his often haunting music.
Yet there is also an unmistakable sadness to his later years; when his friends talk about his troubled relationship with drugs and alcohol, one could be hearing people talk about any addict. The tightknit music community that flocked to his shows in Portland, and later led him to seek the anonymity of New York, gave way what sounds like a more solo figure. Rob Sacher, owner of former Lower East Side bar Luna Lounge, recounts seeing Smith writing in a notebook, only finding out later that he wasn’t a novelist or poet, but a songwriter.
The film debuts just over a decade after Smith’s passing, but never feels dated. Perhaps the timing works so well because those willing to appear onscreen have had time to reflect on Smith’s legacy. Yes, there will always be some who only want to see Smith as “a man who could make Brian Wilson look like a happy-go-lucky kinda guy,” as Hadley Freeman did in The Guardian last month (in which she was actually defending him against charges that his music played a role in Peaches Geldof’s death, a story that would likely make those in the film cringe).
Heaven Adores You isn’t a laughfest, but a soulful, moving tribute that doesn’t try to have the last word, but offers an intimate look at Smith’s evolution as an artist. This is certainly a documentary that will appeal first to Smith’s fans, but is worth viewing for any music lover.
At his shows, I remember there being a hushed, breathless anticipation as we waited to see which song Smith would play next. When I saw Heaven Adores You at its premiere in San Francisco, there was a more relaxed vibe. Since we knew the ending, we could enjoy the journey.
You can watch the first 4 minutes of Heaven Adores You: