Heaven Adores You, a new documentary about the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, is reaching theaters just a couple of weeks after the television premiere of another celebrated rock doc, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. And in many ways, the subjects of the two films led largely parallel lives: Indie-rock poets from the Northwest who found fame on major labels even as drugs and depression led them down a dark path to a suicide that is still believed by some to have been murder. And both films respectfully stop short of addressing the circumstances of the rockers’ deaths.
All of that aside, you’d be hard-pressed to find two documentaries as different in every way as Heaven and Heck. The Cobain film is frenetic at every juncture, where the Smith portrait is utterly calming. Kurt’s movie seeks closure in psychological solutions to what troubled the star; Elliott’s looks for it strictly in the music. Heck delves deeply into the darkness; Heaven prefers to remember its subject in a higher state of grace. Both approaches work on their own terms, but you have to wonder: What drove director Nickolas Rossi to accentuate the positive about Smith, when his life came to such a legendarily lurid end?
“I really didn’t want to approach this in a sort of investigative, Nick Broomfield way of just digging and digging and trying to uncover,” says Rossi. “This wasn’t necessarily something where it was like ‘I’ve got a question about who Elliott Smith was, and I’ve got to find the answer.’ I didn’t feel like there was this need to tell the world what I thought was wrong with Elliott Smith. It seemed like he was a normal dude who had normal problems, and there wasn’t really anything exceptional about the fact that he did drugs or was depressed. And if I was going to try to tell you where it came from, I might be wrong. I wanted something that was less about ‘Let’s psychoanalyze Elliott Smith’ and more: Let’s hear stories from his friends and from his sister and from Elliott talking about his journey. Here’s all this great music, so let’s continue to keep it alive and relevant, because it was special and it’s amazing that we should still be sharing it. We may never know how bad or weird or hard it was for him. But do you really need to know, or can you just listen to this amazing stuff and appreciate it for what it was?”
In case it isn’t already clear, Rossi is a fan, and largely, though certainly not entirely, because he grew up in Portland, too, and, like most locals who were into the alt-rock scene in the ‘90s, revered Smith as a hometown hero. Heaven Adores You is almost as much a love letter to Portland as it is to Smith. A significant chunk of the film is made up of newly shot footage of the city’s empty streets (Rossi has previously mostly worked as a cinematographer) while we listen to Smith’s voice, either in the roughly 40 music tracks that were licensed for the film or in radio interviews lifted mostly from Chris Douridas’ Morning Becomes Eclectic chats on L.A.’s KCRW. As Smith’s moves to New York and ultimately Los Angeles become part of the narrative, the director shoots the lonesome side of those cityscapes, too. But when Smith’s presence becomes truly heavenly toward the end, well, it’s back to Oregon, the place we all imagine he’d be most likely to return and inhabit as a wisened spirit.
There were creative choices to do all that dreamlike landscape photography, but also practical ones. Smith’s heyday was in the late ‘90s, the last moments in which rock performers didn’t have their every waking moment captured on video. “When we started really digging into the archives of Elliott Smith, there’s actually a lot less than you’d think,” Rossi says. “We didn’t have iPhones, and video was just kind of coming to be useful in the late ‘90s. So there’s footage and interviews of Elliott, but not an excessive amount of concert footage. What I really wanted to rely on more, anyway, was his voice and not so much his image. We know what he looks like, but it’s his voice and his music to me. It reinforces that here are these streets in Portland and L.A. and New York that he doesn’t exist in anymore. It’s this present-day place, but we’re listening to this guy who‘s not around anymore. I didn’t want to be heavy-handed and be like ‘He’s an angel and he’s floating in heaven,’ but I really wanted to give a feeling of his presence. I felt it was comforting in a way.”
It’s somehow fitting that we would see Smith in fits and spurts, given his unassertive, almost reclusive persona — which, ironically, was a key element in his unlikely mass appeal. “I think in some ways he was the anti-celebrity,” says the director. “He was so uncomfortable about his stardom, and he handled it as best he could. He probably became this big thing because he was the Everyman that we could relate to. He didn’t have a shtick. He didn’t have a huge rock star personality that overtook the talent. He put up with the interviews… There’s something so simple and basic about the guy who used to do mudding and construction doing these songs that could quiet a room.”
Smith was hardly the type to barge into anyone’s consciousness, since his music was primarily acoustic after he left the band Heatmiser to go solo, and his stage presence was unassuming even by acoustic standards. Yet, against all odds, he became a near-household name, at least briefly, when his song “Miss Misery” was nominated for an Oscar after being featured in Good Will Hunting, and he quietly performed on the telecast in a white suit, drawing attention for drawing no attention. (The documentary includes further confirmation of the fact that they only pretended “Miss Misery” was written for the movie, violating Academy rules, although the nomination is unlikely to be rescinded at this late date.)
After that 1998 breakthrough, Smith became more of an enigma even to his friends, and didn’t make the mainstream news again until his death in 2003. He was stabbed twice in what most people believe to have been a suicide during a domestic dispute, although the coroner’s report was left inconclusive, leaving open the theory of homicide. Those who believe Smith wouldn’t or couldn’t have stabbed himself to death point to the lack of illegal drugs in his system at the time of death. A whole movie could be made about just that final hour and the subsequent speculation about it, but it’s not the one Rossi wanted to make.
“The cause of death remains undetermined, 12 years later, and I didn’t feel like we were going to get a different answer,” Rossi says. “If we wanted to open up that can of worms, it would be distracting from the focus of what we wanted the film to be about, which was the music. It felt like the media had already done enough of summing him up as ‘Of course, the tragic death of Elliott Smith — depressing music, junkie.’ I felt there was so much more to celebrate about his life than to just pick up where most people left off with him, which is the sad sack who may or may not have killed himself. And the people that we interviewed didn’t really want to talk about their friend’s drug habit, other than that it was heartbreaking to watch. One of the comments that comes from people who watch the film is how there are a lot of photos of Elliott laughing and smiling and seemingly having a good time. There are all these stories about how he was very witty and generous and well-read. I started thinking, wow, Elliott Smith doesn’t seem like he’s always a sad guy, when there’s video and photographs of him joking around. More often than not, people wanted to talk about how much they loved Elliott, and how amazing a musician he was.”
Rossi doesn’t mind if you think he’s remembering Smith’s salad days through rose-colored glasses: He thinks part of his film’s appeal is that it memorializes rock’s last golden age. “Maybe people are sort of romanticizing the ‘90s,” he admits, “and I do too, because it’s a time in my life I thought was amazing. But I also think they don’t make ‘em like him in music anymore. There don’t seem to be those singer/songwriters that their lyrics are the thing that hook you in and go ‘Wow, they say so much.’ Musicians might be a little bit lazy these days.”
Heaven Adores You is being rolled out in theaters by Specticast before appearing on DVD and VOD in late summer. The unusual theatrical plan includes one-nighters in dozens of cities over the coming days and weeks, along with one-week runs in cities as disparate as San Francisco, Seattle, Fort Collins, Columbus, and Providence. Find the city-by-city release schedule at the Specticast website.
And watch a clip from the film below: