By Caren Badtke
“The less I think about [the fame], the happier I am. I don’t care where I fit in to anything, or if there’s anything to fit in to. It’s just… I like music, you know? That’s the thing. It’s very uncomplicated,” American Singer-Songwriter Elliott Smith says in the beginning of the documentary Heaven Adores You.
Smith’s life, though, was all but complicated, up until his apparent suicide, which was as dramatic as it was tragic. Two stabs straight to the heart – perhaps the cruelest way to die. Then 34, he died 11 years ago in Los Angeles, a place he hated.
Elliott Smith is shown as the guy who loved the music more than he loved the fame, who merely endured the spotlight to be able to play music — until one day he couldn’t do it anymore. His downwards spiral is a crucial part of Heaven Adores You, a documentary about Smith’s life and the music he created. The project is crowd-funded, and thanks to the vision of producer Nickolas Rossi, the help of some of Smith’s closest friends and family, and the support of fans all over the world, the 105 minutes that beautifully capture the life and music of Elliott Smith have finally made it to the screen.
Heaven Adores You was premiered at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, and now makes its rounds to the smaller, quieter places throughout the country. In Tucson’s Rialto Theatre, the documentary is shown as part of the 10th annual Tucson Film & Music Festival to an almost full house.
The documentary tries to appeal to both Smith’s fans and a more general audience, and even though it keeps a good balance between interviews and musical interruptions, scratchy, archive footage and scenic sequences, fans might be a little disappointed to find few information on Smith that hasn’t been there before. On the other hand, Heaven Adores You does honor to the person Elliott Smith was by showing him both as an epic, mystical persona and a quiet, shy, and normal guy.
An intimate atmosphere is created by stories and anecdotes told by people who had been close witnesses to Smith’s life. His former agent talks about Smith’s time in New York; his former bandmates discuss his early musical aspirations; his friend talks about the role of depression and addiction in Smith’s and their lives. They all take a moment to share their pieces of the story, and what the audience gets to see on the screen are real emotions.
Some of these confessions will give fans a whole new perspective on some of Smith’s lyrics, while others that have been previously revealed can now be seen in another light. His sister Ashley, for instance, gives a moving statement on the teenage Smith’s family situation, but leaving out the alleged abuse that Smith had to endure by his stepfather. Elliott Smith moved away to Seattle at age 14, leaving his mother’s side of the family behind and moving in with his dad (“xo Mom, it’s okay, it’s alright, nothing’s wrong/Tell Mr. Man with impossible plans to just leave me alone/In the place where I make no mistakes, in the place where I’ve got what it takes” – it says on Waltz #2 (xo) from the 1998 record xo). Furthermore, the audience gets to see the woman for whom Smith wrote the moving piece “Say Yes,” and though they do not learn a lot about her and Smith’s relationship and its failure, this is another piece of the puzzle that is Elliott Smith.
Rather than a story told chronologically, it might have been nice to see these moments linked instead to the music they created, to give a fuller perspective. The carefully sorted segments and sequences in album-to-album order give the documentary a certain calmness. This leaves behind a bittersweet taste, even when the lights come up at the end.
As a recapitulation of Smith’s life, his ups and downs, and overview of his work, Heaven Adores You serves its purpose as an outstanding documentary by honoring a musician of significant cultural impact. ♦