So much has already been said about ‘Heaven Adores You’, the new documentary about Elliott Smith by Nickolas Rossi, so many reviews have already been written… I am very late in the game as the film has made the indie film festivals circuit in the US and Europe, although, on Thursday night, I attended the world theatrical premiere at the Regent theater in Los Angeles.
So, if you have already read a few reviews, you won’t probably very surprised if I tell you the movie is a tasteful and honest portrait of the beloved singer-songwriter, which has chosen to ignore the ‘tabloid aspect’ of his tragic story and doesn’t go into details about his personal life – Joanna Bolmes is the only girlfriend who speaks on screen. Nickolas Rossi and the producers (Kevin Moyer, Jeremiah Gurzi, Marc Smolowitz) didn’t want to make an investigative piece, they wanted to make a music piece, and in this sense they were successful, but they also made sure to give a fair and honest account regarding the scandalous aspect of Elliott’s death.
Unavoidably, the movie opens and closes with his death and we get to see sentences reflecting what we know so far, ‘Elliott died of two stab wounds,… the autopsy report revealed he had no drugs or alcohol in his system,… it was inconclusive and the circumstances of his death could not be determined’. You even get to see Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza expressing his disbelief when he heard the news, ‘I thought it was just a rumor’, and video director Ross Harris’s alarmed facial expression, ‘Who can do that?’
Beside this the movie stays very neutral on the subject but objectivity is important in this case, because so many previous works (W. T. Schultz’s ‘Torment Saint’, Gil Reyes’s ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’) have attempted to bring an answer (suicide) where the police investigation had failed. Nickolas Rossi and Kevin Moyer (a childhood friend of Elliott’s) are very cautious in this sense, they celebrate Elliott’s life and music although things are not totally sugar-coated: Elliott’s friend and publicist Dorien Garry discusses Elliott’s dark side, personal demons, and his suicidal thoughts as well as the plunge into drugs, and you get to hear Jon Brion say ‘it was the beginning of the end’. But they don’t go too deep into this dangerous path, and if you are a casual fan and take a bathroom break at this precise moment, you may easily miss it. Elliott’s childhood trauma and his stepfather Charlie Welch – who allegedly abused him when he was a child – are barely mentioned. At least, it seems like a relief when compared to Brett Morgan’s treatment of Kurt Cobain’s childhood ineluctably leading to his eventual suicide in 1994 – I saw ‘Montage of Heck’ two weeks ago – at worst it seems like an easy and safe way to brush away deep problems which made Elliott who he was.
‘Playing it safe is the most popular way to fail’, said Elliott, although, I realize it is a lose-lose situation in this case. If you don’t talk about it, you will be accused of avoiding the subject, if you talk about it and take a side, your work takes a totally different direction, and could become a bias demonstration that suicide was unavoidable. The story becomes tainted by the outcome and you shoot yourself in the foot as Reyes did it before. So I am glad we didn’t get to hear once again about the cliff incident (often falsely regarded as a previous suicide attempt) or the 2001 descent to drug hell… did we need to see footage of Elliott totally fucked up on stage and unable to finish his songs? Because it really happened, but ‘Heaven Adores You’ spares us from this.
I was with a friend who is an Elliott Smith outsider as she said, and I would say that the movie works very well for people like her. It introduces them to Elliott’s beautiful music and charming character, someone who just wanted to write songs and record them, someone who was living for his art, ‘I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous…’ he says in an interview at the beginning of the movie. The film paints a nice portrait in this sense, it focuses a lot on Elliott’s goofy side and you get to smile and even laugh a lot, much more than expected. You even get to hear early and previously unheard songs (‘I Love My Room’) as well as baby pictures, and this will surely please everyone.
‘Heaven Adores You’ is a film without any agenda, and it is very refreshing, but it’s also somewhat unsatisfying for people who know much more than the average casual fan. If you are a fan, you already know the story, the early beginning in school bands, Stranger than Fiction, Murder of Crows, Harum Scarum, the Heatmiser adventure, then ‘Roman Candle’, which started Elliott’s solo career at a moment when a guy playing an acoustic guitar was considered nerdy and uncool. Curiously, we don’t get to hear JJ Gonson who was so present throughout the pages of ‘Torment Saint’, but we witness his fast ascension to fame – he was a star in Portland before being famous everywhere else – his nomination for an Oscar in 1998 for the song ‘Miss Misery’ and the surrealist experience to see him walking with Joanna, behind Madonna on the red carpet. We hear from many friends, and beside the people previously cited, we hear photographer Autumn de Wilde, owner of Jackpot! Recording Studio Larry Crane, former manager Margaret Mittleman, Producer Rob Schnapf, childhood friend Steve Pickering, bandmate Tony Lash, Portland musicians Pete Krebs, Sean Croghan, Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, Largo owner Mark Flanagan, musician Jon Brion, and half-sister Ashley Welch, who is the only family member involved. These represent quite a lot of people, still, there are many absentees who still refuse to talk about Elliott since his death, like bandmates and friends Sam Coomes or Neil Gust. But may be the biggest absentee of all is Jennifer Chiba, his last girlfriend, with whom he was loudly arguing the morning he died, and who has been the subject of so much speculation since. After the screening, someone asked if ‘Jennifer’ had been contacted, and they simply answered ‘no’, without elaborating much, partly eluding the question by saying that, since she wasn’t making music with Elliott or wasn’t his manager, there was no reason to get her involved… We see his move from Portland to New York then to LA – which was supposed to be temporary. However fans have already heard most of the stories and anecdotes, so there’s not a lot to learn, which, again, may not have been the point of the movie. Rather, it is a meditative piece where you get to see a lot of sad and melancholic Portland, which could be the real star of the movie. During the Q&A, Nickolas Rossi was asked about the abundant scenery shown during interviews and he said it was due to several things: first a lack of footage from this period, then an intention to make us concentrate on Elliott’s voice and listen to what he had to say; plus it was a way to make an emotional connection between the empty streets and his voice and music.
May be I should just be happy that honest people were in charge, it is a heartfelt tribute. However, during the Q&A, something happened which tells me a bit more than what the movie wants to tell us. Autumn de Wilde, who is visibly still heartbroken, reacted passionately to a question asked by someone in the audience: ‘Do you think Elliott would still be alive if he hadn’t known fame?’ asked a woman. ‘It’s too easy to make this connection’, replied Autumn, part angry, part devastated, ‘No offense, but we don’t know what happened to Elliott that day’. And this is also the answer that Kevin Moyer gave me when I talked to him after the screening. He looked like a very nice guy and he sounded very sincere when he said he still doesn’t know what happened, ‘Whatever happened, it will not bring back my friend’, he added, ‘I’m glad that some people are looking into this but it wasn’t the goal of the movie’. I get it, they wanted to show this sunny-funny side of Elliott that doesn’t usually come through and they managed to do so. In ‘Heaven Adores You’, Elliott is a ghost haunting these deserted Portland streets, walking on these bridges,… lots of bridges over troubled water – oh Elliott would have hated this one! It’s nice and poetic but we never dive too deep into these murky waters.
Originally published on Rock NYC (May 9 2015)