While undeniably beautiful with some rare and unseen archive footage, Getintothis’ James Sullivan finds that Heaven Adores You plays it safe and sheds little new light on Elliott Smith’s demons.
Last month FACT played host to Liverpool’s only cinema screening of the Elliott Smith documentary Heaven Adores You.
First-time director Nickolas Rossi had promised to place the music centre-stage. Which would seem to make sense: Elliott Smith’s songs were always cinematic in their ambition and emotional scope, even when they were often played by just him on his acoustic guitar.
That shambling, dirty-haired guy, this time in a crumpled white suit playing his acoustic guitar, opens the film. He looks tiny. Huge velvet curtains flank the stage, which itself is golden. The cameras swoop and swirl in soft-focus. Various voiceovers describe the ludicrous situation: Elliott Smith – inverted, uber-shy indie-hero – had been nominated for an Academy Award for his contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. The only thing more out of place would be if he were competing against, say, Celine Dion. Which of course he was.
The film tracks Smith’s life through the various albums he released, firstly with the band Heatmiser, and latterly under his own name. To guide us through this musical progression, Rossi uses many great sweeping shots of the three cities he lived in during these years: Portland, New York and, finally, Los Angeles. It’s functionally directed: cityscapes, talking heads and archive footage.
For an Elliott Smith fan – and there are many, obviously – the main draws were the previously unheard home recordings; the family photos; the interviews with friends, colleagues and, most rare of all, his little sister.
Those things are indeed all great. But therein lies the great compromise at the heart of the film. Hearing Elliott Smith finding his voice through home demos is fantastic, as is listening to people talking about their friend Elliott. Video director Ross Harris remembers him as a “human jukebox“; collaborator Jon Brion recalls his own exasperation at just how good Smith was; photographer Autumn de Wilde talks of her admiration for how he would hog the jukebox in a bar all night long.
But anyone with even a passing knowledge of his story knows there is more, much more. The tragic and undetermined death from two stab wounds, the drugs, the at-best complicated, at-worst deeply troubling relationship with his step-dad.
These subjects are passed over rapidly, or alluded to without ever being looked at further, which in itself becomes distracting. Why is no one talking about these things? He talked about them all the time – they’re right there in his songs!
You have to assume that this was part of the deal: his closest friends and family simply wouldn’t have agreed to speak on camera about the darker aspects of his character, or how it all ended so tragically, so abruptly. Even twelve years after his death, they’re still protecting him.
It’s hard to be churlish about that, but ultimately it leaves a big hole in the heart of the film. It’s never anything less than a joy to hear Elliott Smith songs being played; particularly with charming excerpts from live gigs, video footage of him fooling around, or old radio sessions. His awkward, stumbling speech contrasting so brilliantly with his musical virtuosity. So on that level, the film works.
But it feels compromised. Just by listening to his music, we already knew so much more.