DIR: Nickolas Rossi • PRO: Nickolas Rossi, J.T. Gurzi, Kevin Moyer, Marc Smolowitz • DOP: Nickolas Rossi, J.T. Gurzi • ED: Nickolas Rossi, Eli Olson • MUS: Elliott Smith, Kevin Moyer • CAST: Elliott Smith, Rossie Harris, Jon Brion, Chris Douridas, Larry Crane
Contrary to similar rock stars who have died young and controversially, documentaries on melancholic musician Elliott Smith are rather thin on the ground. Steve Hanft’s metaphorical and prophetic short film, Strange Parallel (1998) fuses funereal performances with disjointed and surreal dream sequences, leaving the audience bemused but rather baffled. Gils Reyes abandons notions of impartiality in his bio-documentary Searching for Elliott Smith (2009), instead providing a platform for Smith’s much-maligned former girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba to exonerate herself from involvement in his death, leaving a rather bad taste in the mouth. Director Nickolas Rossi is well positioned, therefore, to redress the balance of such middling attempts and assemble an objective, informative and engaging film that should attempt to exhibit both Smith’s euphonious legacy and unmask the mercurial moods behind the sombre songwriter.
Heaven Adores You opens to an ominous declaration from Larry Crane, owner of Portland’s Jackpot! Recording Studio and Elliott Smith archivist, that Smith’s unforeseen and uncomfortable Oscar nomination for his ode to his dark depression, ‘Miss Misery’ in Good Will Hunting (1997) was “the worst thing, in a way, that could have happened”. According to Crane, the nomination was a monumental turning point, displacing Smith from the comfort of his gloom-ridden angst and catapulting him onto a global stage of over eighty-seven million viewers, who were just as confused as he was, as to what this introspective Texan man in a white suit was doing performing at the Oscars. Five years later Smith was dead. Smith’s Oscar nomination and death appear to have defined and eclipsed his musical legacy, despite producing five critically acclaimed studio albums during his terse solo career; his death more so, as theories of homicide abound and the case remains open, apparently insoluble.
Owing to Rossi’s eagerness to get to the crux of the matter within the first few minutes, it would be easy to assume he intends to engage with a sensationalist narrative, creating yet another disproportionate overview of the man, the music and the mystery. Heaven Adores You is indeed an unbalanced portrayal of Elliott Smith but not through a distasteful voyeuristic lens, as the opening would suggest, but rather through a determined rejection to investigate any aspect of Smith’s maladjusted life at all. Rossi, evidently aware the weight these two life-defining episodes carry, acknowledges both incidents swiftly and that concludes any personal investigation into his biography for the duration of the film. Heaven Adores You alternatively becomes an outlet to deify Smith’s discography; his wistful and stirring music hauntingly showcased throughout.
Locating the film in the three US cities that ultimately rooted his life, Portland, New York and LA, Heaven Adores You charts Smith’s musical rise from his early days in hard-core punk band Heatmiser between 1991 and 1993 (as his equally tragic predecessor, Kurt Cobain was finding commercial success in neighbouring Seattle with Nirvana) to his dissatisfaction with the band and his subsequent ruminative solo career, which saw a prodigious shift in style to a more melancholic, folksy/pop formula. Rossi’s adoration of Smith’s laments permeates throughout and his refusal to engage with the more disturbing aspects of his character (crack addiction, depression, suicide attempts) attests to his unwillingness to smear the film’s objective; to simply showcase Smith’s musical brilliance.
This tactic however, leaves the audience with a rather skewed impression of a man whose music was a reflection of the despair, erraticism and abuse that ultimately drove his song writing. Indeed, Heaven Adores You portrays a somewhat stable and composed man, deeply at odds with the unsettling lyrics he is singing, which contain an abundance of signifiers to his fragile state of mind. That his insuperable addictions, raging paranoia and ambiguous death at the age of thirty-four from two stab wounds to the chest and heart is scarcely reflected upon, is to largely negate the palpable significance of the music Rossi is actually worshipping.
Frequently and erroneously compared to Paul Simon, interviews with former associates and friends tentatively paint a portrait of a man whose music more than consumed him, as a consequence of his intense, moribund state, thereby illustrating the crucial symbiotic relationship between the man and music and the need to interrogate the personal tragedies in order to fully comprehend the saddest songs. Although there is reference to a clearly troubled relationship with his childhood past, which undoubtedly became the catalyst to his angst, Rossi, whether owing to deference or trepidation, refuses to probe into this relationship and this common element throughout becomes wholly frustrating, leaving the film severely lacking.
Whilst Heaven Adores You undoubtedly showcases the creative genius of Elliott Smith and will either introduce or re-engage audiences with the musical mastermind behind emotive and prescient songs such as ‘The Biggest Lie’, ‘Between the Bars’ and ‘Waltz #2, it is unfortunate Rossi has failed to extract a more symmetrical narrative, balancing the music with the myth, which could have served as an effective counter-narrative to the tabloid sensationalism and inadequate documentaries he is so desperately attempting to disavow. Which is a shame, as owing to this, Rossi may have aroused an appreciation of Smith’s music but he may also have unwittingly refuelled more than a traducing interest in his gnomic demise.
Heaven Adores You is released 8th May 2015