On Elliott Smith: Nickolas Rossi’s “Heaven Adores You” (2014)

A stylized, red-lit photo of Elliott Smith performing at the Lit Lounge in New York City in January 2003, shortly before his death.

I imagine many might wish to believe that our lives are marred by tragedy. That some sort of sadness exists as nothing other than to shape us, wherein we are then forced to grow as result. For the artist, too often this sadness looms underneath—and even with talent and some modicum of success, the artist remains mired in loneliness. (If not emotional, then intellectual.) This, I feel, represents the singer and songwriter Elliott Smith, as showcased in Nickolas Rossi’s 2014 documentary, Heaven Adores You. ‘I don’t feel so different on the inside,’ Smith notes, in an interview. ‘People just started asking me different questions. I am the wrong sort of person to be famous.’

The documentary, while offering a nostalgic view of the mid-1990s and early 2000s in Portland, Oregon, aimlessly offers little narrative into Elliott Smith’s character. To contrast, in Searching for Sugar Man, the 2012 documentary on the ‘lost’ pop artist Sixto Rodriguez, the narrative is stronger in how it unfolds. After all, the film begins with the question of what happened to this mysterious singer, believing that he might have committed suicide, to audiences learning that he is very much alive. However, in the case of Elliott Smith, those who know of his work are aware of his death at age 34 that, despite the cause still being deemed ‘inconclusive,’ has all the indications of a suicide.

Smith, who changed his name from Steve to Elliott, did so because he believed that Steve was ‘a jock’s name.’ Throughout the film, wispy brown hair fills his face, and he often looks on with downcast eyes, appearing camera-shy. He is soft-spoken and has conflicting feelings about the attention his music receives. Like many, I first heard of Elliott Smith upon purchasing the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Nominated for an Oscar for his song, “Miss Misery,” both the film and the music therein give a glimpse into the quintessential ’90s—the indy singer, the messy hair, and performing in loosely-fitting jeans with an old tee shirt at a small, packed venue. For me, this time is mired in personal nostalgia, and the documentary will no doubt fulfill its bliss for those who love Elliott Smith.

Throughout, there are lovely shots of the Pacific Northwest, as well as photos of Elliott’s childhood. His physical looks range from mildly handsome to disheveled, but he does carry an individual sex appeal, regardless. And while I am not skilled in musical terms, his songs are melodic, reflective. They contain his whispery, gentle vocals that caress at your heart in that way one might crave, even if not always good. So, what is the problem then? One reviewer remarked that many of the interviewees aren’t particularly insightful, and I would agree. Not that they are bad, per se, but the observations feel surface-level. Much of their revelations are circumstantial—I knew him here, we played there, we went to school, etc. And thus, Heaven Adores You flounces about, as it details Elliott Smith’s life in Portland, to his move to New York, to his video filming in California, to the Oscars where he appears in a white suit ‘with dirty hair,’ as he says, surrounded by celebrities.

This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between Heaven Adores You and Searching for Sugar Man; in the case of Rodriguez, his documentary and recognition appear as a triumph—the inevitable comeuppance for the talented, underdog artist. But in the case of Elliott Smith, however, the Dreamworks signing and the Oscar nomination seemed to work against him—not necessarily artistically, mind you, as he went on to create several more albums. Emotionally, though, while Elliott Smith admitted to craving the attention, by then he was already well established within his milieu, as those within the Portland scene who knew of him very much knew of him, and his fame grew despite his not needing the rest of the world to discover him.

Artistically, I would argue that Elliott Smith ranges from very good to excellent. His lyrics, while melodic and reflective, can feel repetitive at times, as they lack a diverse quality. Not that they sound similar, but when listening, one might interpret a predictable approach and lack of vocal verve. To contrast, I would not place him, for example, alongside vocalists like Harry Nilsson, Gordon Lightfoot, Sam Cooke, and Jim Croce, all of who engage in a wide range of styles. (Of course, there are many other singers one could name, but these four have remained my favorites throughout the years, with Croce and Cooke a tie for the lead.)

Rather, were I to rank Elliott Smith alongside a poet, he would be the musical equivalent to Hazel Hall (who coincidentally also has ties to Portland). Both reach into excellence at times but are both held back by a limited vision, as one becomes aware of their potential subject matter and how it will be undertaken. (Likewise, I always envisioned Buddy Holly as the musical equivalent to John Keats, as both had an expansive vision yet died too young.)

As Heaven Adores You progresses, it is saddening to see Smith devolve into alcohol and drugs, so much so that he is unable to perform in certain instances. And at times, his voice quivers and weakens as his health declines. Nevertheless, despite its limits, I recommend the film to those who wish to uncover more about the circumstantial life of this talented performer—but don’t expect more than that. Truthfully, other than life’s ‘plot points,’ the film doesn’t relay anything more about Smith that one couldn’t glean from his songs. However, one of the more insightful moments is when one of Smith’s friends remarks upon when he realized Elliott was musically in another league, and how one must not only acknowledge such talent but must also be willing to let it go. That is, to allow that artist to become. Since his death, Elliott Smith’s songs have only continued. He came and left his legacy, and he would have wanted it that way.

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More from Jessica Schneider: They Too Are We: Reviewing Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” (1976), Ethereal Circle: On René Laloux’s “La Planète sauvage” (“Fantastic Planet”, 1973)The Whimsical Wonderment of Albert Lamorisse’s “Le Ballon Rouge” (1956)