Rossi: Documentary chronicles ‘music, not lifestyle’ of Elliott Smith
By Michael C. Butz
Cellar Door guest contributor
Elliott Smith’s music is personal in a way that allows listeners to form close relationships with it.
He shares parts of himself through raw, emotionally charged lyrics — delivered by his trademark voice (sometimes fragile, other times stormy) — but also gives listeners space to connect in a way that’s meaningful to them. He invites you into the room; the best songwriters do.
As one of those, Smith and his music have been sorely missed since he died more than 11 years ago.
Director Nickolas Rossi’s documentary, “Heaven Adores You,” chronicles that rise while providing a textured account of Smith’s cross-country movements from Dallas to Portland to New York City to Los Angeles; the manner in which he grappled with fame and strained relationships; and the way both affected his songwriting during his rise to indie rock stardom during the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Rossi successfully employs an approach and aesthetic that pays homage to Smith’s personality and art, and with that familiar feel, “Heaven Adores You” at times evokes a long-awaited letter from that sorely missed friend.
The 104-minute film examines the evolution of Smith’s music, from its pre-teen beginnings and Heatmiser’s Portland punk to his acoustic solo material and eventual worldwide notoriety by way of the Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery.” The story is of course set to a soundtrack of Smith’s songs, including much never-before-released material, and told against the backdrop of backstage photographs and rare concert footage.
Rossi intersperses scenery from each of the cities in which Smith lived to give viewers proper context for his surroundings and how they might’ve affected his music. This is particularly true with Portland, where the majesty of nature and grittiness of industry run parallel in a way that mirrors Smith’s persona.
To narrate Smith’s story, Rossi combines clips of Smith’s TV and radio interviews with interviews of the singer’s friends and former colleagues. Key sources include Larry Crane, archivist and owner of Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland; Ross Harris, who directed Smith’s early music videos; former bandmate Tony Lash; Sean Croghan and Pete Krebs, two Portland-area musicians; photographer Autumn de Wilde, who directed Smith’s “Son of Sam” video; Dorien Garry, one of Smith’s former publicists; and multi- talented musician Jon Brion.
Rossi, a 40-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. resident, discovered Smith while he lived in Portland, Ore. from 1994 to 1999.
“At the time, grunge was still on its way out and things were still a little loud, so to have this sort of unique singer-songwriter, that stuck out,” he says. “That, paired with his ability to come up with these amazing stories in his lyrics and his ability to play guitar, it all draws you in.”
When Smith died in 2003, Rossi lived in a Los Angeles neighborhood not far from the Solutions! audio-video repair shop wall on Sunset Boulevard made famous by the “Figure 8” album cover. On the day Smith died, Rossi visited the makeshift memorial being built there and recorded footage of fans leaving letters and writing on the wall. That video, which Rossi credits for informally starting the process of “Heaven Adores You,” eventually made it to YouTube, where it drew responses from fans around the globe.
“That sparked this question: How did this guy from the sleepy town of Portland come up with this amazing career and have this long-lasting impact on people?” he says. “What was it about him that was so unique that so many people were inspired by his music?”
With that seed planted, more formal planning for “Heaven Adores You” started in 2007. As the film gained direction and Rossi started to explore Smith’s life, he says he had two a-ha moments. First, he discovered Smith’s talent was evident at an early stage — even before high school.
“(Smith) was proficient in songwriting, and there was a real indication that he had this career ahead of him,” he says. “I didn’t really realize that. I didn’t realize he was that good that early on.”
Secondly, Rossi found his idea of Smith shifting from what the media portrayed at the end of the singer’s life.
“At the time of his death, (Smith) was sort of summed up as a sad-sack, depressing guy who makes depressing music and has issues with drugs and alcohol,” he says. “But in talking to his friends, he was incredibly generous, he was incredibly funny, he made beautiful music, he was well liked and he was well read. I found a different side of him that was much more playful, much more accessible. He wasn’t always in this gloomy space.”
But when it comes to delving into dark topics widely acknowledged to have influenced Smith’s songwriting and substance abuse, Rossi’s film treads lightly.
Smith’s tumultuous relationship with his stepfather, Charlie Welch, is addressed, but only briefly during an interview with Smith’s half-sister, Ashley. There’s no discussion of the uncertainty surrounding Smith’s death at age 34 or the controversy surrounding his girlfriend at the time, only a footnote acknowledging that the coroner never determined whether two stab wounds to the chest should be classified as a suicide or homicide.
And rather than fully elaborating on the extent of Smith’s destructive behavior, viewers are given only glimpses of its aftermath by way of his friends’ tempered yet sorrowful accounts.
Such gaps may leave some wanting more, but the omissions, Rossi says, were intentional.
“Those things are unavoidable because they’re part of the Elliott Smith story being told and being perpetuated,” he says, suggesting there’s no shortage of information on those matters available on the Internet. “The story we wanted to focus on was the music, and the evolution of the music, which I found more interesting than the predictable, ‘Let’s focus on the bad decisions Elliott made at the end of his life.’ I didn’t want it to be this sensationalistic tabloid of a movie.
“It was the music that drew me to Elliott Smith, not his lifestyle, and I wanted to remain true to that.”
At that, Rossi ultimately succeeds. “Heaven Adores You” is an emotionally engaging film that pays tribute to Smith’s life and art in a way that’s in harmony with his music. It simultaneously fills a void for longtime fans who miss an old friend and provides the appropriate context for new fans to understand — and further discover — Smith’s music.
“I want Elliott Smith to stay relevant, not fall into obscurity,” Rossi says. “It was a big deal for my generation to have him. Hopefully through this documentary, we can still sort of share that amazing bit of talent with generations to come.”
Michael C. Butz is lifestyles editor for the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, and if pressed to pick a favorite Elliott Smith song, would choose one of the first ones he ever heard: “Say Yes.”
“Heaven Adores You” screens at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, March 22, at Tower City Cinemas and at 5:45 p.m. Monday, March 23, at the Beachland Ballroom & Tavern.