Elliott Smith ‘Heaven Adores You’


The inconclusive evidence surrounding Elliott Smith’s death makes for a compelling story. He died in 2003, at the age of 34, from two stab wounds to the chest. Whether the fatal injuries were self-inflicted is still up for debate, but you’ll be disappointed if you thought this documentary was about getting to the bottom of the mystery with groundbreaking new evidence. This is the story of his music career, pieced together with interviews of Elliott himself (or ‘Steven’, as he was named at birth) and his family, friends, band members, producers and fans, plus live footage from TV appearances and music videos.

I’m currently reading the book ‘How To Write About Music‘ – a process that it describes as similar to ‘dancing about architecture’. Here, I find myself writing about a film about music. Any further complications to my task have been thankfully avoided due to the basic nature of this documentary. Nickolas Dylan Rossi debut’s as director, having worked predominantly as a cinematographer for a variety of films in the last 12 years or so – largely music or art related. Obviously, the interviews and footage are key factors in telling the story of Elliott’s life, and it’s interesting to meet the characters that surrounded him. But some of the more memorable scenes are those that have Elliott’s music playing as they show us past and present footage of the cities that he lived in while he grew as an artist – Portland, New York and L.A.

You get a real sense of what it was like to live in Portland in the early 90’s. Elliott was in a post-punk band called Heatmiser, who played a big part in the local scene that was responding to what was happening amongst the noisy neighbours in Seattle. Remarkably, Elliott’s acoustic guitar work, despite drawing comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel, came under the spotlight amidst the craze that was grunge, when everyone else was shouting and trying to make as much noise as possible. His combination of Joe Strummer/Elvis Costello vocal over Nick Drake/Bob Dylan guitar, was too appealing to drown out.

New York life lead to an Oscar nomination for his song ‘Miss Misery’, after it appeared in the film Good Will Hunting. His solo performance of the song at the 70th Academy Awards catapulted him to fame, and a worldwide tour of the album ‘Either/Or’ followed. He spoke to Celine Dion that night, while wearing a white suit. “It was a kick”.

Elliott’s performances had the capacity to silence most crowds through mesmerising fingerpicking and a vocal that you never tire of listening to. His songs rarely discuss his own life, despite wide opinion, he chooses mainly to narrate the lives of others – making notes in his journal while hanging out in bars. A method that Tom Waits has been known to use.

His use of alcohol and drugs are touched upon, as well as the friction between him and his step father when he was growing up in Dallas, but overall you get a real sense that Elliott Smith was a loveable, funny and happy person to be around; someone that, from a very early age, just wanted to write and perform his songs for a living. His talent far surpassed those around him, and all interviewed looked upon him in awe. He managed to  live his dream, but inexplicably, his career was cut short.

Heaven Adores You doesn’t have the sweeping, lush cinematography of Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club, or the imaginative artistic and poetic approach of Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days On Earth, or the creative melting pot of ideas that combined to form Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, or the stunning twist from Searching For Sugar Man… this film is as plain and as simple and as thoughtful as Elliott Smith himself – an extraordinarily talented man, with an acoustic guitar, on a stage. It seems he was never attempting to be anything more than just that. For this reason, Nickolas Dylan Rossi has made a documentary that Elliott Smith’s passionate fans will appreciate.

Whether this film has the drawing power to attract large numbers of followers is questionable – the agenda here may well be to dispel certain myths, showing a side of Elliott that was in danger of being lost forever amongst sensationalist hearsay. He had the ability to lift the heaviest of hearts by relating to the listener on a personal level, and then cunningly instill a sense of well being and optimism. I guess, if they had concluded that it was a suicide, the healing effect of his music would be somewhat diluted. Watching this film goes some way to put your mind at rest, and revitalises a passion for his songs, which will undoubtably outlive us all.

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Peter Rea

I like to go see fresh new music at Manchester's superb selection of smaller venues, and then share my enthusiasm.