Documentaries about musical icons tend to be either too worshipful, or too determined to find the warts part of a warts and all biography. Heaven Adores You looks at the late Elliott Smith and his music in a way that, while it leans a tiny bit toward the former, doesn’t hesitate to include Smith’s flaws. Given his unique talent, the result is a fascinating, slightly melancholy, yet overall positive look at a talent for which the word genius actually applied. The film made me want to replay his music.
Heaven Adores You gets the basics out of the way quickly: Elliott Smith was born on August 6, 1969 and died on October 21, 2003. Then it begins to tell his story as seen through the eyes of friends, fellow musicians and industry people who saw.
Smith was born in Omaha Nebraska but raised in Texas, where he began to play guitar and piano and write songs – a great bit of archival footage shows him explaining in an interview why he had left his earliest songs behind, ‘They weren’t very good.’ Throughout his life, it seems, a lack of candor was not one of Smith’s shortcomings.
The film traces his progression as he moved to Portland, Oregon and became a regional star in a series of bands including Heatmiser, who attained a regional legendary status, before setting out as a solo act and becoming a worldwide star before his death, by stabbing, in Los Angeles.
The picture painted by his friends and colleagues is not one of constant depression, though he did suffer from the condition and became heavily addicted to drugs. It’s interesting to note that Smith did warn a close friend that she shouldn’t get mad at him if he did something to hurt himself, though that was well before his death – and it should be noted that his death, caused by two stab wounds to the heart, was never officially declared a suicide as autopsy evidence was inconclusive.
For all the memories shared in Heaven Adores You, what elevates the film above most biographical documentaries is the music. Smith, as I mentioned above, write music that deserved to be called genius (where a lot of stuff to the word is applied isn’t even close).
Lyrically, Smith kept things simple, but in a way that was what his stuff powerful – but it was his occasionally playful side that always intrigued me – and the movie includes an off-kilter waltz he wrote for the XO album.
Appropriate attention is given to Smith’s Oscar® nomination for Miss Misery, which was used in Good Will Hunting – and is one of the pivotal moments in the growth of his popularity.
Director Nickolas Dylan Rossi does a terrific job of balancing talking heads with archival footage of Smith playing or giving interviews – or just clowning around with his bandmates and friends. He interweaves current shots of the places where Smith lived and worked – showing both that we are all temporary guests on the planet, but that some of us, like Smith, leave behind something that will live on.
The film, through Smith’s friends, ultimately gives us the feeling that while what happened to Smith was a tragedy – and he did suffer from depression – he was a happier person than we previously knew. And the proof is in his music.
I saw an encore screening of Heaven Adores You – the film’s director appeared at the first screening (the word is ‘blast!’ isn’t it?).
Final Grade: A