Heaven Adores You (2014)
For a long time, Elliott Smith was just another guy. He traipsed around Portland, his home of many years and the central location of Heaven Adores You, like any other face about town. He did drywall jobs to pay rent and played in a grunge band at small dive bars. He put out records that did OK in his own city. He was a regional darling, if that, within a thriving local scene.
By 1998, Smith was doing interviews on “Total Request Live” and getting mentioned in the same sentence as Celine Dion. How did this happen? To chart his ascent from Portland secret to obsessively beloved singer/songwriter, we can point to two facts. The first: Smith had a superhuman talent for writing melancholic pop songs. The second: Smith lied about the song “Miss Misery” to make it eligible for an Oscar. Smith and director Gus Van Sant claimed he wrote the song for Good Will Hunting – thus qualifying it as a Best Original Song – when it was just another unreleased number he had lying around. That lie lead to an Oscar nomination, a record deal, world tours and a level of fame that left Smith with profound unease.
Heaven Adores You, despite its rather strange collection of shortcomings, makes do as a primer on Smith and the impact his music has on people.
“I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” he says early in Heaven Adores You. The film, now playing at DOCNYC, strives to both celebrate Smith’s music and prove this essential point. Smith entered the world of celebrity on a lie, and his very presence there was a mistake. Heaven Adores You, despite its rather strange collection of shortcomings, makes do as a primer on Smith and the impact his music has on people. It’s a respectful if far too safe first cinematic draft of the Elliott Smith story.
Heaven Adores You chronicles Smith’s entire career, from his high school bands to his final album, From a Basement on the Hill, released one year after his death. Director Nickolas Rossi and producer Kevin Moyer have gathered an impressive cache of unreleased material for this undertaking. Even the most obsessive Elliott Smith super fans won’t recognize some of the alternate takes, instrumentals and early songs featured in the film. The new recordings make Heaven Adores You an event for longtime fans, even if the interviews hold fewer revelations.
For the uninitiated, Heaven Adores You is a serviceable run through Smith’s catalogue. Rossi structures the film around Portland, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles – the three cities where Smith lived during the course of his career. Through talking heads, archival interviews of Smith, and location shots in all three cities, the film recounts the major moments of his career. It portrays Smith as a complex person – someone who could be a joy or a pain to be around, depending on his mood.
The film pays homage to every Smith solo record and his albums with the band Heatmiser. The three cities play a central role in the film, though Rossi saves most of his love for Portland. What forms is a shaggy greatest hits reel with classics, new songs, and live recordings sprinkled throughout. Some of the musical cues are quite on the nose – we hear “Coast to Coast” when Smith moves from Portland to New York, “L.A.” when Smith moves to L.A. Still, the film gets enough close friends and family to talk in front of a camera to remain an important piece of work. Particular coups for Rossi include interviews with Elliott’s sister Ashley; Joanna Bolme, the inspiration for Smith staple “Say Yes;” and Jon Brion, the savant producer who had a famous falling out with Smith during his final years in L.A.
The film’s diplomatic approach to Smith’s life further adds to the frustration. Rossi and co. want us to view Heaven Adores You as a celebration of Smith’s music, not a biopic-like film about the man himself.
The new music and rare interviews can’t compensate for the film’s very odd directorial decisions, sadly. Rossi rarely finds a way to pair audio interviews and song snippets with images that capture the feel of an Elliott Smith song. Instead, he couples long stretches of voiceover or music with shots of Portland bridges, rivers, and close-ups of audio equipment. These shots are as unremarkable as they are innumerable. The “city symphony” approach conveys very little about Smith or his music; the repeated cutaways to the Portland skyline feel downright lazy (one exception: the ghostly warmth of “Waltz #1” works quite nicely with the image of a light snowfall in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park).
The film’s Kickstarter campaign calls Heaven Adores You an “experimental film.” It is, in fact, a very straightforward talking-head documentary saddled with images of cityscapes so banal they border on stock footage. It doesn’t help that another film has already bettered Heaven Adores You at this approach. “Lucky 3,” a 1996 short film on Smith that blends performance footage with images of a rain-puddled Portland, made that city more evocative in 11 minutes than Heaven Adores You does in 104.
The film’s diplomatic approach to Smith’s life further adds to the frustration. Rossi and co. want us to view Heaven Adores You as a celebration of Smith’s music, not a biopic-like film about the man himself. This is, in theory, wise. No one wants a film that brutally foregrounds Smith’s battles with depression, addiction, alleged childhood abuse, and suicide. That would distract from his legacy as a songwriter. It would also run the risk of offending his parents, who hold the rights to Smith’s music and have previously refused to let a similar project (2009’s unreleased Searching for Elliott Smith) use his recordings.
But surely a film that glides past Smith’s allegations that his stepfather abused him – and how much those allegations colored his songs – has given us an incomplete picture of the musician. The same goes for a film about Elliott Smith in which no one says the word “heroin.” Heaven Adores You sidesteps all of the most explosive and frightening aspects of the Smith story. Any analysis of Smith’s music that avoids the abuse or drug imagery in his lyrics will remain superficial and vague. It isn’t tabloid fodder to note, for example, that Smith’s songs included lyrics like “Charlie beat you up, week after week / And when you grow up, you’re gonna be a freak” (Charlie, of course, being the name of his stepfather). We hear nothing from Smith’s parents here, or his girlfriend at the time of his death, or Neil Gust, his Heatmiser band mate. How can we celebrate the music when the film remains too timid to touch the contexts from which it came?
Other unwanted questions crop up throughout Heaven Adores You. Why, for example, does a documentary about Elliott Smith open with two generic instrumentals by the film’s producer? Why does the film fixate so much on Smith’s not very compelling music videos? Haven’t we already seen that shot of the Portland skyline?
One could forgive the blatant omissions and stolid cinematography if the film truly dug into Smith’s mind as a musician. Every record gets its due, but the film never really explores his larger approach to music. We are left still wondering how the same musical mind was drawn to thrashing angst rock, whispery Simon and Garfunkel numbers, and big-budget chamber pop bathed in string sections and saxophones. The film highlights all those eras, but it never asks what led Smith to such grand aesthetic overhauls in his short career.
Elliott Smith said he was the wrong person for fame. Perhaps, too, he’s the wrong person for a documentary film. His story remains too shrouded in anguish and ambiguity for any one party to tell. His family would rather the public not focus on the darker chapters of his life, which is their right. Such is the reason why songs with titles like “Suicide Machine” and “Abused” got left off his final posthumous album. It’s also the reason, I suspect, why this film opts for such a narrow portrait of Smith. Heaven Adores You offers a wealth of archival treasures, but it fails to fully unlock the man or his music.
The first major documentary on the music of Elliott Smith, Heaven Adores You is a serviceable run through the singer/songwriter’s catalogue. The film works as a primer for the uninitiated and offers a wealth of new recordings for longtime fans. Ultimately, its overly timid approach to the darker and genuinely controversial aspects of the Smith story prevent it from being anything more than a mild celebration of an already much-celebrated artist. Director Rossi’s decision to bury the film in banal images of city skylines does little to reflect the mood and impact of an Elliott Smith song.