Gil Reyes’ Documentary ‘Searching For Elliott Smith’ Was Originally Supposed To Take A Totally Different Direction

When I talked to Gil Reyes at W.T. Schultz’s book signing on Saturday, I mentioned an article published by the Cardinal Times, Lincoln High’s school paper, in 2005. First, Reyes couldn’t remember what I was talking about, but I think he was rather dismissive, as he said later, ‘you are quoting a high school paper’. So what? Isn’t it an insult for the high school? So because it’s just a high school paper and not the LA Times I should not consider what they published in 2005? Lincoln High is a respected school and it is not as if Reyes was working for a well-known TV station or was a renowned filmmaker either! At that time, Reyes was filming the Portland part of his documentary and was interviewing Elliott Smith’s ex-teacher(s) at Lincoln High, that he had attended when he was young. The high school newspaper was reporting about it, nothing surprising there, and the article (see below) was actually well written.

But the point is that, in 2005, Reyes had a totally different perspective for his movie as it is demonstrated by this sentence:

‘Reyes has veered away from Smith’s death in his documentary, saying he “didn’t want to deal with that part [of his life].’

Those who have seen the movie, know it is not exactly the case as a large second part of the movie is actually about J. Chiba’s innocence and Elliott’s suicide.

I reminded Reyes that the article was quoting him saying that ‘the authorities “jumped the gun in calling his death a suicide,” which led the press to “come down on the fact that he was depressed.”’

What a difference a few years have made. Of course, everyone is entitled to change his or her opinion, but it is interesting to note that he was very unwilling to recognize he had felt that way a few years ago. Of course, it was before he had met with Jennifer Chiba… She approached him later on, said she wanted to participate in the movie, and everything changed.

Since 2005, the school paper must have changed its website and the article is only visible in web cache here, but here is the full text:

‘Thursday, December 15, 2005 By Chris Stadler

Two years after the death of Elliott Smith, independent film director Gil Reyes is finishing his documentary on the Lincoln alum. Working only six minutes from the house where Smith had allegedly committed suicide, Reyes, a local television reporter for the Los Angeles news station KCBD, has spent nearly four months traveling across the nation to delve into the life of what Rolling Stone calls “the patron saint of indie rock.”

Reyes’ filming in Portland, early in December, brought him to the location of Smith’s teenage years with his father, after severing the relationship between his mother and the life he had in Texas. Residing friends, fans, and past band members of Smith were interviewed while Reyes was in Portland.

Ending his four years at Lincoln with the Class of 1987 as a National Merit Scholar, Smith attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts following graduation. There he majored in philosophy and political science before returning to Portland to form the band Heatmiser.

At Lincoln Reyes filmed current staff that had taught Smith.

“[I] wanted to get a sense of Lincoln High School and what the school was like; sort of get a feel for it and get it captured on video,” Reyes said. Civics teacher David Bailey, who was interviewed, said Smith was “one of those rare, bright individuals who teachers loved to have. He had a deep concern for others, [as well as] a passion for life.”

Nearly a decade before indie rock would dominate popular music, Smith had begun perfecting the iconic mellow rhythms associated with the genre.

What catalyzed his career in Portland from an unrecognized artist to a contributor in the making of an entirely new genre was a combination of his friendship with Oscar-winning director Gus Van Sant and his lyrics.

Smith’s songs gained international recognition when they were featured in Van Sant’s 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.”

Both were nominated for Oscars: Best Director (Van Sant), and Best Original Song (Smith), but neither won.

At the time, Smith began to drift away from Heatmiser, producing six original solo albums that influenced many artists in today’s rock, many of whom were shocked when his death became known in late October of 2003.

Reyes has veered away from Smith’s death in his documentary, saying he “didn’t want to deal with that part [of his life].” He has gathered accounts from Smith’s life in Portland to his last years when he resided in Los Angeles.

Smith’s struggles with depression, drug addiction, and alcoholism prior to his death allowed for parallels to be drawn between his problems and his reported suicide. Yet since the LA County coroner’s report of his death was released that December, controversy has arisen as to whether he could have been murdered.

No accusations have been made, but investigations are still in progress. Reyes feels the authorities “jumped the gun in calling his death a suicide,” which led the press to “come down on the fact that he was depressed.” Reyes’ documentary looks upon Smith in a different light, encompassing the entirety of his career in music, not simply his death.

Reyes is unsure of when the documentary will be released, hoping there will be a conclusion to his death. “And at that point,” he said, “We can hear the story.”

Looking back into why he began the documentary in February 2005, Reyes said, “I started off being a fan, and if you listen to his music, he speaks to you like he was an old friend. I want that same experience [to be felt by] a lot of his fans.”’

Originally published on Rock NYC (October 15 2013)

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