My spirit arose, and put on my clothes
and helped me disconnecting the phone
to leave well enough alone
leave well enough alone
leave well enough alone
— Elliott Smith, “A Living Will”
TO BE MISCONSTRUED; quoted out of context; taken too literally. The biography of a celebrity — a poet-cum-rock star at that — is vulnerable to misinterpretation. Early on in the new documentary Heaven Adores You, Elliott Smith, quietly submitting to an interview on Dutch television, admits to the interviewer that he thinks he’d be a bad celebrity. He stutters, “I’m just — I would have to be …” sighing, “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous.” Smith died five years after the interview, under equivocal circumstances, bleeding to death from two stab wounds to the chest in his bathroom. In the 10 years since, the sensation of his death and his psychological state leading up to it have overshadowed the bulk of his life and work. But in the new biographical documentary that premiered this month at the San Francisco International Film Festival, we’re given hope that Smith’s image can still be discovered, restored, and reframed.
Heaven Adores You excels, first and foremost, at leaving its core narration to the posthumous artist himself. The meat of the film hangs on an interview Smith gave on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic on May 6, 1997. In retrospect, it’s a decidedly midcareer moment; Smith had released three albums, been part of as many bands, and was hard at work on the soundtrack for a film called Good Will Hunting, which would land him a legendary solo performance at the 1998 Academy Awards and rocket him to a major-label deal the following year. But in 1997, sitting across from Chris Douridas in the KCRW studio, Smith is still pre-celebrity. In describing himself, he is unwittingly trenchant, struggling to reconcile a tendency for being candid about his life with the wisdom of propriety. The result was an endearing but stilted interview, one full of biographical holes, which Heaven Adores You director Nickolas Rossi seeks to fill in.
Unlike many remembrances of Smith’s life that have come before, the film does not play up his darkest moments or attempt to distill Smith’s life to the tropes of a tortured artist. Benjamin Nugent’s Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, which was finished just months after Smith’s death, was widely considered to skimp on nuance in favor of tales of reckless behavior, highlighting both Smith’s inner and outer turmoil. Similarly, William Todd Schultz’s Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, which was released around the 10th anniversary of Smith’s death last fall, dresses up Smith’s biography in the same archetypes of sorrow, obscuring the finer points of a complicated life and playing to sensational lifestyle choices. Jayson Greene’s Keep the Things You Forgot: An Elliott Smith Oral History, published around the same time, broke some new ground, chronicling Smith’s life and music dutifully and with dignity in tons of new interview material — but for the casual or uninitiated fan, it’s a near-impossible entry point. Heaven Adores You accomplishes what these and other attempts have not; accessing Smith’s closest and oldest friends, family members, and collaborators who had never before submitted to such an open discussion of the late songwriter’s life, and weaving their accounts into an accurate and poignant celebration of the artist’s life. As is noted in the film, Smith knew how to use archetypes as well as any poet, to make his songs more vivid, more affecting. But he hardly lived those poetic devices to the same extent — for better or worse — in his real life.
Instead of dabbling in old and regretful traumas, Rossi opts to dig up new material, enlightening Smith’s biography through intimate stories about the songwriter that had never before or rarely been recorded. Smith’s playfulness, his boyhood enthusiasm, is better captured here than in any one source before. Slim Moon, who ran Smith’s first label, Kill Rock Stars, recalls an early West Coast tour where he first encountered Smith’s raw talent (“I was utterly floored”) and how he recruited Margaret Mittleman, who would go on to be Smith’s manager for most of his career. There’s also Joanna Bolme, perhaps one of the most influential women in Smith’s life, who gives new insight into Smith’s character. Smith recorded his solo debut Roman Candle in her basement, blamed her in part for his departure from Portland in 1997, and still took her to the Oscars as his plus-one in 1998. She talks about Smith’s quirks and sensibilities, portraying him as humorous more than tragic, and even weighs in with her feelings about inspiring the song “Say Yes.”
People both beam and wilt when talking about their run-ins with Smith. His music video director Ross Harris remembers Smith as a whimsical, fun “punk kid”; a guy that was “great to have around”; a “human jukebox.” Autumn de Wilde, famous for photographing Smith on the cover of his major-label breakout Figure 8, also downplayed his mystique: “He was not a pretty boy singing pretty sad songs. I think that was a really important part of what hooked people in; he had kind of an, everyman — he just looked like a normal dude.” She draws up an exemplary anecdote, in which Smith walked into a random New York City bar and immediately dumped $40 in the jukebox. “I was so impressed,” she fawns. Later she insists, “He wasn’t always playing himself in his songs. There’s just enough of his diary there for you to feel like it’s real — then he takes half of it away and gives it over to you, so that you can take full ownership with whatever is going on in your life.” Late-period collaborator Jon Brion, whose time with Smith is often referenced in the same breath as his downward spiral, has apparently come to terms with talking about Smith, as well. In the film he sits, hunched, with moral support from the more affable nightclub owner Mark Flanagan (Largo), another friendly face from Smith’s time in Los Angeles. In his strange way, Brion offers deadpan praise, his mostly averted eyes obscured by his mess of hair: “there were a couple of times where he fully freaked me out as a musician.”
Amid the film’s positivity, there are penetrating glimpses of the harder parts of Smith’s life, which the film mostly sidesteps. Smith’s sister willingly speaks of her and Smith’s childhood, but the presence of their father looms ominously, the unspoken and unpleasant specter, which caused Smith to flee his childhood home in Texas, and returned to haunt him for much of his life. Smith’s time in Portland is treated generously, with beautiful photography and quaint, telling audio snippets. And though due coverage is given to his early music — most notably his rock outfit, Heatmiser — band members and longtime friends Neil Gust and Sam Coomes are conspicuously absent. Likewise, Smith’s time in New York, which has been written about poignantly in the past, is retold in the film largely through the dense filter of a few arm’s-reach comrades, including his local bartender. On arriving at the end — which, for Smith, was Los Angeles — the story cuts off abruptly, with the pained break from his longtime manager, Margaret Mittleman, and no word at all from Jennifer Chiba, who was living with Smith, and present at the time of his death. Finally, there is little discussion of Smith’s musicality, likely because covering harmony, composition, and Smith’s obsession with gear would easily comprise another film entirely.
Elliott Smith knew when a tune was overplayed. He could feel it in his bones, so much that it hurt. In later years, he struggled to play a hit like “Waltz #2” or old cuts from the Either/Or days. He’d get two bars in and stop, often to the dismay of expectant fans, apologize, and move on. “I’m sorry …” he said, over and over on stage and in sessions, “I’m too sick of it.” Many people interpreted this as moodiness, as a smug diva move, or as (in some cases correctly) the effects of a drug-addled psyche. But Smith was acting out of self-preservation, trying in vain to pace himself as he scooted steadily toward the edge. He was a perfectionist, his own harshest critic; but he had learned how to leave well enough alone.
Heaven Adores You, also the title of a song by the Smith-adoring indie peers Earlimart, is a more than apt name for the film. At its heart, Rossi says, it is a “love letter” — a glowing, thoughtful, deeply researched love letter — which chooses to celebrate rather than denigrate what Smith wrought. Our impulse is often to dig and dig, to find the dirt beneath the veneer of celebrity, but it’s possible that for an artist so brilliant and belabored as Smith, with a staggering proportion of beautiful work, such a disinterment is neither necessary nor valuable. Every artist has dirt to be dug up, and to wallow in it only obscures what has been accomplished. One hopes that, once the body leaves the soul, the dirt can go with it, too.