“Heaven Adores You” the passion project of first-time documentary filmmaker, Nickolas Rossi received its world premiere at the recent 57th San Francisco International Film Festival. The full-length feature sheds light on the early life and music of the much under-appreciated Elliott Smith as remembered by his Portland fans and his inner milieu of close friends, record label/publicity folks and fellow-band mates, some of whom have never spoken on camera till now.
The SFIFF which ran from April 24 to May 8 presented three screenings of “Heaven Adores You” and each was sold out. Fans have been very eager to see the film. Rossi who premiered the film in Canada soon after, in an interview with Examiner.com this morning said: "There was a great turn out for the film in Toronto. The audiences continue to stay engaged with the film and there was a great Q&A session afterwards. It's great to see Elliott Smith fans outside of the States. With our recent premiere at SFIFF, we're at the very beginning of what we hope to be a very long festival run and I'm encouraged by all of the fans who have reached out that we can make this film available to everyone as soon as possible."
Apart from diehard fans, Elliott Smith will be vaguely remembered by most as the guy with the awkward white suit and black hair that stuck out like a sore thumb in the glossy pageantry that was the 1998 Academy Awards show. He was Portland’s little secret until director, Gus Van Sant put his song, “Miss Misery” on the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack.
Garnering a Best Original Song nomination meant Smith had to sing in a category with Michael Bolton and get on the same stage with Celine Dion who sang the winning “My Heart Will Go On” from the “Titanic” soundtrack. Incongruous as it was, Smith took it all in his stride but he did compare the experience of walking the red carpet behind the likes of Madonna, to walking on the moon. And in subsequent interviews was candid about never wanting to do that again.
Smith was a big fan of the Beatles and Elvis Costello. He knew musicians Beck and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and had many celebrity admirers of his music. Fellow Portland-native Van Sant was a fan of his, so it was not inconceivable that this film could have gone down the path as a more celebrity-led celebration of his work. But even just uttering that makes it sound dubious and all wrong.
Rossi does the sane thing by interviewing friends who knew Smith in junior high where he was already finger-plucking competently as a 14 year old, and later putting together bands to record their own albums using a four-track recorder.
Though he rose to prominence during his time in Portland’s burgeoning independent music scene of the early-Nineties, as a child Smith grew up in Dallas, Texas. Midway through high school he moved to the Pacific Northcoast to live with his dad. He found Portland with its alternative culture and cool climes of majestic Redwoods awe-inspiring and soothing.
In the documentary, we are treated to a never-before heard song, “Outward Bound” which details this feeling and gives fresh insight to his flight from the South. This was courtesy of his Texas-childhood friend, Steve ‘Pickle’ Pickering.
And therein lies the strength of this documentary – unheard songs, family photos, old cassettes, lost footage and personal memories of those closest to him who attempt to reveal a more rounded and earnest portrait. From his half-sister, Ashley Welch; to high school muso friends that could see Smith was gifted with something special; and his band mates from the post-grunge outfit, Heatmeiser.
There is already a 2009 film about Smith “Searching for Elliott Smith”; an essential 2005 book of photographs and handwritten notes by friend, Autumn de Wilde; a less-than perfect biography “Elliott Smith and The Big Nothing” and a more definitive one published last year titled, “Torment Saint”. The latter by Portland author, William Todd Schultz is the perfect companion to “Heaven Adores You”.
The cult of Elliott Smith is partly spawned by the suspicious nature of his death which likely had its roots in his depression and ensuing substance abuse. Toxicology reports however, revealed that he was clean at the time of his death which makes it all the more sad. But it lives on more than a decade after his passing because it is undeniably his art that keeps fans holding a candle to him.
“Heaven Adores You” side steps the histrionics and does well to remember the music and the man. Flawed as he was, with his gossamer-light whispers he reveled in his songcraft - geeking out on the chord changes he loved to play, and creating his art in spite of his addictions and suicidal tendencies. It also harkens to a time when friends recalled Smith as a funny guy who got in late on jokes but was always a good sport. This was far from the reputation that would precede him later as the morose and tortured singer/songwriter, a guise that he himself abhorred to entertain.
Rossi who moved to Portland in his twenties was smitten with Smith’s music much like everyone in Portland at that time. Later, as a director of photography, Rossi would have harbored the impulse to set Smith’s music to moving images. He admits that 'Elliott's music was the soundtrack of my life. He was the voice of my generation'. Rossi was privileged to see Smith on stage, in Portland bars or just walking down the street, lending a poignant weight to the panning shots of Redwoods and lonely, suburban scenes framed through the moving lens.
He added: "I've actually come to look back on those experiences with two feelings: On one hand, living in Portland in the mid 90's and seeing someone like Elliott Smith perform his solo material was like watching the guy from Heatmiser on stage. There wasn't really this " omigod, it's Elliott Smith" reaction. He was, in a lot of ways, just another guy living in Portland, making music. But---the other side of that experience was in actually being in the room when he started singing. He really captivated a room with his songs, and it's true when you hear that he would silence a room. My memories of watching Elliott perform were of an entire room that was hanging on every word that he sang."
Andrew Mandic, a fan who caught the last screening of "Heaven Adores You" at the SFIFF said: "I saw Elliott Smith play here, at The Warfield in 2000. He was on his Figure 8 Tour. Some of the songs were with his backing band, some with just him and his acoustic guitar. During the latter, I distinctly remember how incredibly quiet it was in the concert hall. Everyone was extremely attentive, as if collectively encouraging him to successfully make it through his songs (by this point in his life, Elliott sometimes flubbed his lyrics or couldn't play some of the trickier guitar parts). From what I remember, it was a flawless performance...and he still clearly possessed that gift to command a room."
Mandic added: "Hearing about his death had the effect of a punch to the gut. It was losing someone everyone always pulled for. The cloudiness of how he died doesn't really matter. As a fan, I was pleased to find the film provided a more comprehensive take on the evolution of his music, going all the way back to when he first played music at age 13 or 14 in Dallas, TX."
Perhaps there is an attempt to leave out the full throes of Smith’s addiction, and the voice of Jennifer Chiba - his girlfriend at the time of his death, but this documentary brings something else to the fore. A quiet insight and beauty that fills up some of the blanks that the more sensationalized earlier works omit or didn’t have access to. “Heaven Adores You” is a tribute more fitting for Elliott Smith’s legions of diehard fans but also to those waiting in the wings, yet to discover his work.
To see if "Heaven Adores You" will be playing at a film festival near you, please visit www.heavenadoresyou.com or click here. For new fans, "An Introduction to... Elliott Smith" the 2010 compilation out on Domino Records (UK) and Kill Rock Stars (US) is an excellent primer to his comprehensive body of work.