When Elliott Smith sang “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards in 1998, that gentle whisper of melancholy indie folk felt almost as if it had been included by mistake among the power anthems, perky Disney tunes and syrupy romantic ballads that usually populate the best original song field. Heaven Adores You, Nickolas Rossi‘s deeply respectful documentary tribute to the late singer-songwriter, shows an artist who was as much an uncomfortable anomaly in the pantheon of rock stars as he was on that stage surrounded by all the glitter of Hollywood.
Financed via Kickstarter, and filled with commentary from friends, family, former bandmates, management and music producers, the film will primarily be of interest to existing devotees. Many of those, however, have continued to discover Smith’s music since his untimely death at age 34 in 2003, from two seemingly self-inflicted stab wounds. He left behind an enduring body of work that makes him no less a heartbreaking figure in the annals of rock tragedy than, say, Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley — arguably more so due to the extreme violence of his death.
Smith’s solo albums include Roman Candle, Elliott Smith, Either/Or, XO and Figure 8, as well as the posthumously released From a Basement On the Hill and New Moon. He contributed six acoustic jewels, “Miss Misery” among them, to the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant‘s Good Will Hunting. Those collections showcase an immensely gifted composer of concise songs that grab you and hold you with the immediacy of their interior access. His lyrics could be enigmatic, troubling, playful or confessional, sung by an achingly pretty voice that matched intimacy with intensity, and performed by a self-taught musician with mesmerizing slippy-slidey finger-picking guitar skills.
The demons of addiction and depression are all over Smith’s lyrics, and song titles like “Everything Means Nothing To Me” and “Ballad of Big Nothing” read like prophetic hints of a tortured personality too ill-at-ease in the world to stick around long. But one of the chief takeaways from Rossi’s film is the impression that nobody ultimately knew Smith well, even those closest to him. The words from his song “Waltz #2” that adorn a plaque on the wall of his former school seem sadly appropriate: “I’m never going to know you now, but I’m going to love you anyhow.”
Rossi covers all the bases with more thoroughness than depth. But the doc assembles a coherent chronological timeline, jumping back from Smith’s death to trace his early exit from his family in Dallas to his adoptive home of Portland, Oregon, and his musical evolution, starting with school bands Stranger Than Fiction and A Murder of Crows, and continuing with the pop-punk group Heatmiser. As that band’s sound grew too loud for Smith and his quieter, more introspective style became an uneasy fit, he broke off into a successful solo career.
More than one observer notes the suddenness of the shift from playing low-key gigs for a handful of people to adoring crowds once the secret got out, wondering if this was overwhelming to someone as fragile as Smith. “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” he says in an interview clip of his diffidence about being a rock star. The Oscar whirlwind and being signed to DreamWorks also happened perhaps too fast for Smith to handle.
A number of interviewees talk up his happier side, including his influential relationship with musician Joanna Bolme, who was the subject of one of his most beautiful double-edged love songs, “Say Yes.” New York friends talk about his move to Brooklyn in search of relative anonymity, traveling across the country with just a duffel bag and a guitar. The general view is that while he relished writing and recording music, touring and interviews were something he endured merely to facilitate his true passion.
As the doc progresses through his various solo albums, evidence surfaces of his increased withdrawal into drug and alcohol abuse. An intervention by friends resulted in most of them being alienated by Smith, who reportedly could get mean with the people close to him. The sorrowful paradox here is that one of the most prolific and golden periods in his songwriting — which led to the stellar final album released in his lifetime, Figure 8 — coincided with the steady deterioration of his personal relationships.
However, the final spiral that led to his death is covered in somewhat frustrating glimpses, with fragments of information about failed rehab attempts, or gigs in which Smith forgot lyrics and cut short his sets. There’s genuine feeling in the observations of his friends and associates about watching such a singular talent destroy himself. But this section in particular makes one wish for a more probing investigative approach, especially given the inconclusive findings of the coroner’s report.
It seems a shame, too, given how exquisitely Smith’s songs have been used to shape the mood of scenes in numerous films of the past decade and a half, that directors with whom he collaborated — among them Van Sant, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Jem Cohen — are absent among interviewees. And at least on a first listen, the inclusion of previously unheard songs unearths no major additions to the canon.
Still, there’s much to savor here, notably the bleak beauty of Rossi and co-cameraman Jeremiah Gurzi‘s images. Recurring motifs of travel, solitude and urban desolation are effectively used, with the forests and somber skies of the Pacific Northwest, as well as bridges, freeways, empty streets, industrial wastelands, cityscapes, old storefronts and crumbling movie theaters. While the Sunset Boulevard mural featured on the cover of Figure 8 provides a meaningful visual cue for fans, it’s the more delicate thematic connection of those pictures from Portland, New York, Los Angeles and environs that poignantly evoke Smith’s work and the music world’s loss.
Production company: Heaven Adores You
Director: Nickolas Rossi
Producers: Nickolas Rossi, Jeremiah Gurzi, Kevin Moyer, Marc Smolowitz
Executive producers: Charles J. Akin, Wesley Hirni, Noah Lang, Haroula Rose, Erick Paulson
Directors of photography: Jeremiah Gurzi, Nickolas Rossi
Editors: Nickolas Rossi, Eli Olson
Music: Kevin Moyer, Elliott Smith
Sales: Marc Smolowitz, 13th Gen
No rating; 104 minutes.