Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: 'Heaven Adores You: A Documentary About the Life & Music of Elliott Smith'


Heaven Adores You is the title of Nickolas Rossi’s recent documentary about the late singer Elliott Smith, but a more appropriate title might have been pulled from the refrain of Smith’s finest song: “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” Smith was an enigmatic figure who weaved themes of despair and abuse into golden tapestries of dusky acoustic ballads and sumptuous Beatle-esque pop. The horrific way he exited this world—he was twice stabbed in the chest either by himself or an unidentified murderer—slapped a genuine mystery across his innate mysteriousness.

There is a fascinating story to be told here, but Elliott Smith was a private person who didn’t particularly want anyone to know his story. This is clear from the interview snatches Rossi includes in his film. Smith backed away from personal questions. That was certainly his right to do. The problem is that Heaven Adores You backs away from them too. An early significant moment in his life was his move from Texas to Portland. His half sister, Ashley, says he left home because he didn’t get along with her dad. I was expecting this to lead into the first peel of the onion. Instead, the film is content to let that vague comment stand. We basically hear nothing else about that stepfather—a topic in songs such as “Waltz 2 (XO)”  (“I’m never gonna know you now…) and “Southern Belle”—until late in the film when Ashley says her dad sent Elliott a letter of apology late in life (according to Wikipedia, the stepfather had a variety of physical abuses to apologize for). A similar tease about the girlfriend who inspired some of his defining songs, including the pulse-stopping “Say Yes”, is also left dangling.

An hour into the film, interviewees begin discussing Smith’s drug problems. A minute of screen time later, they’ve already had an intervention. Then they’re back to discussing the basic details of Smith’s career, which is what they spend the majority of Heaven Adores You doing. We get the major beats of his projects, his geographical moves, and his Oscar nomination (even this kind of gets glossed over—no one even mentions that he didn’t win). We do learn that he neither expected nor wanted rock stardom. That’s no shocker. For me, the biggest revelation was that he was the kind of guy who thought nothing of dropping $40 into a bar jukebox. That’s pretty cool.

Elliott Smith’s death receives no more screen time than a few friends reactions at the start of the film and a couple title cards explaining the circumstances toward the end. Those cards don’t go any deeper into the details than I did in the beginning of this review. Then we’re back to talking heads discussing his legacy and how he was actually a much happier person than most fans believe. I hope that’s true, but it just doesn’t feel like the right thing to suggest immediately after revealing his awful final circumstances. 

I’m not saying that Nickolas Rossi should have gotten his hands dirty, that any of us fans deserve to know all the darkest parts of Elliott’s Smith’s life and death. I am all for respecting his desire for privacy. Heaven Adores You has a lot of really terrific rare footage, such as him performing the haunting “Everything Means Nothing to Me” with Jon Brion for Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera and a raw rock trio performance of “Waltz #2”. Had it just been two hours of that kind of footage, the film would have been really worthwhile. However, by attempting to paint a clearly troubled life as not so bad, by turning such an unconventional career into a series of fairly conventional rock doc beats, Heaven Adores You ends up being kind of disrespectful.

Get Heaven Adores You: A Documentary About the Life & Music of Elliott Smith on Amazon.com here:

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