The life and music of Elliott Smith bears some superficial similarities to Nick Drake: a quiet, introspective songwriter who never quite seemed at ease, and whose life ended tragically maybe or maybe not by his own hand – at a far too young age. But while Drake didn’t achieve anything approaching stardom during his lifetime, Smith was catapulted int othe spotlight.
A new film, Heaven Adores You, explores Smith’s life and music. Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, the film charts his life and career. Remarkably little footage of Smith talking or being interviewed surfaces in the film; whether that was an aesthetic choice or due to such material simply not existing, the effect is to render Smith as a ghostly, enigmatic figure who’s sort of half present, half not.
And that ambience seems to suit the subject very well. As some of those relatively rare audio interviews show, Elliott Smith didn’t want to (or perhaps could not) reveal much of himself in conversation. During an interview for KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, Smith is asked why he had relocated – years earlier – from Dallas, Texas to Portland, Orgeon. He begins to answer, and then thinks the better of it. The tension hangs in the air until the subject changes back to music.
Heaven Adores You draws upon interviews with friends, family and musical associates. Many of them remain visibly moved by the thought of Smith, and there’s a fair amount of holding-back-tears onscreen. This is one of those stories where most viewers know how it ends before they see it, and director Nickolas Rossi wisely starts the narrative at the end. Only once that part of the story is covered does he wind back to the beginning.
The film has a distinctive visual style. High resolution, shallow depth-of-field camera work is used, and the camera lens lingers on its subjects – trains in yards and at crossings; traffic at night; buildings – for unusually long periods. The subjects (or elements within the frame) move, sometimes via time-lapse techniques, but there’s a quiet, forlorn and meditative feel to the visuals. That feel – heightened by the directorial choice to eliminate the audio tracks from those scenes – provides a pleasing backdrop for the musical and narrative audio that moves the story forward. Heaven Adores You isn’t exactly an “arty” film, but it’s an artful one, a film in which the visual approach fits the story like a glove.
Viewers familiar with Smith’s work will find many gems; the soundtrack is packed with music form all phases of his career, including some unreleased material. Those who know Elliott Smith only from his work on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack are in for a treat. And those who know only his acoustic side may be intrigued to discover his much more rocking side, most notably with the band Heatmiser.
But it’s not necessary to know anything at all about the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (he was a fine and expressive pianist, by the way) to enjoy Heaven Adores You.