For many fans, when discussing their favourite music there are two categories: there’s everything else, and then there’s Elliott Smith. For those who have fallen in love/broken up, or are confined to their dorm rooms while the party goes on elsewhere – Elliott Smith still provides a comforting parallel – masterful albums such as Either/Or that tend to put into words feelings you struggle to express and make for ideal background music during lonely late-night bouts of staring into space and chain-smoking because you’ve been friend-zoned or something.
Heaven Adores You is a new documentary that traces the life of Elliott Smith from his beginnings in Portland grunge outfit Heatmiser to solo indie-rock stardom (which reached its peak in 1998 when he performed at the Oscars and signed to a major label) as well as his subsequent downfall at the hands of a well-documented battle with drugs and depression.
The director Nickolas Rossi shoots Portland beautifully (having put in many years as a DOP for features and documentaries) and looks back on the mid-90s indie scene there fondly, but the film suffers from a slow pace and a heavy handed use of dead air – especially where sound bites from Elliott’s many downbeat radio interviews aren’t trimmed nearly enough.
Rossi has made his intentions to ‘focus on the music’ clear – an admirable approach and an attempt to debunk the ‘myths’ of the tortured artist that have dogged Elliott since his breakthrough (the common in-joke on SongMeanings is that every lyric is about heroin) But the problem then is, if you strip away the drama and controversy from what is not an overtly interesting life story anyway – what are you left with?
We’re not asking for ‘Autopsy: The Last Hours of Elliott Smith’ but to almost completely sweep under the carpet the conflicts that inspired the music (the allegedly abusive stepfather, the intervention and brief stay in a mental hospital, the issues with his record label) brings a slight feeling of reluctance and awkwardness to the accounts of the talking heads and the tone of the movie in general.
What results is a slightly messy and occasionally incoherent narrative – it can often seem like Heaven Adores You is a film made by diehard fans, for diehard fans – the film falters to please both the audiences that have spent countless nights on fan forums at 2am dissecting the lyrics to ‘Between the Bars’ – and the total noobs that are checking out the doc because they heard ‘Say Yes’ on ‘American Pie: The Book of Love.
The outcome is a totally worthy, loving, understated but self-conscious bio of a widely appreciated and enduring artist. A remarkable aspect of the film is the unearthing of early recordings Elliott made during high school – these include demos and versions of songs that would later become classic tracks on his albums – and as patronising as it may seem, the film itself looks similarly unfinished and skeletal, and only time will tell if it is definitive.
Dir: Nickolas Dylan Rossi
Featuring: Elliott Smith, Jon Brion, Chris Douridas
Prd: J.T. Gurzi, Kevin Moyer, Nickolas Dylan Rossi, Marc Smolowitz
DOP: J.T. Gurzi, Nickolas Dylan Rossi
Music: Kevin Moyer
Run time: 104 mins
Heaven Adores You is being screened at select cinemas worldwide from May 7th 2015.