The 1998 Academy Awards Ceremony felt a little bit like a private party James Cameron threw for his monumental Titanic, which sailed away with 11 statues that evening, but that was also the night 57 million Americans met one singer/songwriter who left almost as quickly as he came. Per usual, segments from each of the five nominated songs were performed, and while Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” took home the prize, it was the man in the white suit with the unwashed hair singing a quiet little love song (or was it a breakup song?) from Good Will Hunting that got the audience talking. The term “indie rock” was not yet the catchall moniker that it is today, but there was no doubt that whoever that man was; he was certainly “indie.” World, please meet Elliott Smith.
Five years later, Smith was pronounced dead. He was 34.
Cataloguing Smith’s upbringing and musical career of six albums is the documentary from director/producer Nickolas Dylan Rossi, Heaven Adores You.
Rossi constructs Heaven Adores You in the usual manner, gathering friends and colleagues to contribute stories while drawing from a plethora of archival footage to illustrate Smith at work and on stage. The approach is rudimentary, but it works, particularly the inclusion of a radio interview Rossi sprinkles throughout the doc. In it, KCRW DJ Chris Douridas manages to pull a great deal from the reclusive and shy Smith, a man who told the world everything with his music and nothing with his life.
Smith offered his music as whispered poems alongside overdub harmonies and the occasional snarling guitar. His songs were personal, but the business is cruel, and Smith never quite got the backing and the radio play he deserved. Did that contribute to Smith’s eventual exit? Possibly. But most likely, it was a deadly combination of depression, alcohol, and narcotics that did Smith in. The truth is awfully unglamorous.
On Oct. 21, 2003, Elliott Smith died from two stab wounds to his chest. His death was not officially declared a suicide, but no investigation was undertaken, adding just another question to an already long list.
Unfortunately, Heaven Adores You is far too in love with its subject to spend much time exploring Smith’s untimely demise and the emotional baggage that led to it. Of the 30 on-screen interviewees Rossi cobbles together, Jennifer Chiba, Smith’s partner at the time of his death, is noticeably absent from the doc.
This approach almost treats Smith’s sickness as an inevitability of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Smith gained nothing in his suicide and lost everything—his life, his family, and his music. If nothing else, the world is missing some much-needed and dearly loved Elliott Smith albums.
But what Heaven Adores You lacks in insight, it makes up for in music, which Rossi keeps front and center. Smith lived for and through his music, and Heaven Adores You is a magnificent Elliott Smith mix-tape, which is probably where Smith would have preferred to focus the story anyway.
Heaven Adores You (2014)
Directed by Nickolas Dylan Rossi
Produced by Jeremiah Gurzi, Kevin Moyer, Nickolas Dylan Rossi, Marc Smolowitz
Starring: Elliott Smith
SpectiCast Entertainment, Not rated, Running time 104 minutes, Opened May 5, 2014.