There is a special place in the musical cannon for its tortured artists. Because although mythology and sensationalism surrounds them, theirs is the music that continues to resonate with listeners long after their deaths. Elliott Smith is but one of these artists, and is the subject of a documentary entitled Heaven Adores You.
Initially funded via Kickstarter, this film was always going to be a labour of love for all involved, and is the debut offering from its director Nickolas Dylan Rossi. The best way to describe Heaven Adores You is that it is a love letter written by a fan. Like many love letters, it reverently puts the subject of its affections on a pedestal, and overlooks anything unsightly. In the case of this film and its subject, this could either be a good or a bad thing.
Within the annals of popular culture, there are two distinct images of Elliott Smith. The first is an uneasy star standing on the 1998 Oscars stage performing his song Miss Misery which had been nominated for best song. Lank haired and wearing an ill-fitting white suit, he was both a parody and antithesis of everything Hollywood. Five years later he was in the news again, dead from two stab wounds. Whether or not they were self-inflicted remains a popular topic of discussion amongst fans.
“Maybe we can get past the drama and start to focus on what he created” muses long-time collaborator Sean Croghan, who is one of thirty people close to Smith interviewed for Heaven Adores You, and it would seem that this is the main thrust of the documentary.
Heaven Adores You has been created with every good intention to focus solely on rare Smith tracks and the three cities that shaped him- Portland, New York City, and LA, and it achieves this aim well. Although it follows a chronological order there is no real narration. Instead, the amalgamation of photos, outtakes and interviews gives the documentary a sketchy effect akin to Smith’s music. The man himself is only shown fleetingly via awkward interviews and excellent live footage. Grimly beautiful shots of the aforementioned cities are intertwined with Smith’s tracks to beautiful effect, and will no doubt be savoured by fans.
The problem with this gracefully languid documentary, is that it omits so much that continues to make Smith a pertinent artist, instead falling into the fan-trap of romanticism. Smith’s fragile genius understandably presented as a fait acompli, however the personal struggles that he drew on to create his music are curiously absent. Drug addiction, the pressures of fame, and depression all helped to shape Smith’s lyrics, however in Heaven Adores You these are barely discussed, making the documentary feel impressionistic and lacking in a vital substance.
The merit of this documentary is that it fundamentally sets out what it intended to do. If you are a pre existing fan of Elliott Smith, then it is a must watch for the music alone. Its focus on beauty and art is a noble one, however much is left out in doing so. The overall feeling of this documentary is echoed in Smith’s own lyrics from Waltz #2: “I’m never going to know you now, but I’m going to love you anyhow.”
This article was first published in Rip It Up magazine.