Saturday, October 11, 2014

Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands

2014 - Documentary
Heaven Adores You, LLC
10 out of 10

The first and only time I stood in the same room with singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, I had to be cajoled into doing so. My then-ex-girlfriend had become - due in large part to Smith's Goodwill Hunting Oscar nod - a recent and ravenous fan of his sweetly delicate sound. I, however, was resistant to jump in on the Elliott Smith-adoring bandwagon, despite my love of Nick Drake, Love, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and all of the other hazy folk-rock music makers I championed (which Smith easily would have fit in with).  

Maybe it was the hype building around this guy. Or perhaps it was my ex's ex-boyfriend's not-so-subtle re-courting of her with Elliott Smith-laden mix tapes. I dunno. I just wasn't buying in to this Smith guy's deal.

It was around 1999 that Elliott Smith was touring behind his latest album, Figure 8, and he was coming to The Fillmore in San Francisco. The Minders were opening, and since I was (and still very much am) a big fan of that band, I relented to my ex's prodding to go with her to this show. She even offered to pony-up for the tickets, so why not?

From the time Elliott Smith took the stage, to his final bow on the third (or was it fourth?) encore, I realized exactly what kind of ignoramus I had been (the worst kind, naturally). There I was, standing in the presence of a bona fide musical genius: it was undeniable. To this day, I'm still thankful that I hadn't missed what I still consider to be one of the absolute best concert-going experiences I've been extremely fortunate to witness.

From that moment to this, I have remained a huge fan Elliott Smith's music.

Judging by the capacity crowd at the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium - there to watch Nickolas Dylan Rossi's largely KickStarter-funded documentary about Smith, Heaven Adores You, (part of the 32nd Annual Reel Music Festival) - fans both young and greying have been touched by the late musician's music. For anyone in the audience on the fence about the brilliance that lies within Smith's songs, Rossi's film will surely have produced new converts.

Steering away from the sensationalism that made the previous documentary about Elliott Smith's life (2009's Searching for Elliott Smith) seem more like tabloid fodder lite, Rossi instead rather wisely focuses on the gravitational pull Elliott Smith's music had, and still has today (Rossi purposefully omits any mention of Smith's former girlfriend and the last person to see him alive, Jennifer Chiba, all together). Retracing Smith's life in chapters, HeavenAdores You moves along - much like Smith's music, which of course appears this film - at its own glacial pace, tracing Smith's early musical inclinations as a teenager in Texas, through his prolific and formative rain-soaked Portland-based days playing in a bevy of 90's bands (Heatmiser, most notably), to his Oscar-buzzed rise and eventual decline (Smith died in Los Angeles in 2003 at the age of 34).

Through the tapestry of Elliott Smith's life, Rossi introduces us to Smith's friends and family, each discussing the profound impact he had on them. From Jackpot Studio's Larry Crane, Kill Rock Stars' Slim Moon, Hazel's Pete Krebs, Smith's former girlfriend Joanna Bolme, his half-sister Ashley Welsh, and many, many more, Rossi's film weaves together the threads Elliott Smith's presence had on everyone he knew, and the void his passing left behind.

All of this is not to say that Heaven Adores You is a completely melancholy film. Though Smith's death hovers throughout, Rossi's film is tempered in equal measures pathos and humor. Through various recorded interviews, pictures both smiling and mischievous, and interviews with friends, family and colleagues, Rossi paints a picture of a man in possession of a deep well of thoughtfulness and joy. As Crane recollects at one point in the film, all Elliott Smith wanted to do was write and record music. Smith's genius, as this movie illustrates, didn't just lay in his voluminous output, but his desire to share his music - his observations, heartache and humor - with the world.

That Smith had a keen ear for melody and harmony (to say nothing of his skillful guitar playing and his honey-hushed vocal delivery) were part and parcel of the man's intellect. As illustrated in Rossi's film, Smith's solo artist emergence in Portland (and later, the world) was immediate and undeniable. The casual observer may have heard just another depressed guy singing "sad bastard music," but those with keener ears (Smiths fans, most notably) saw and heard reflections of themselves in Smith's songs. The thesis statement of Rossi's film may just be that Elliott Smith belonged to us: we got him, and he got us - even if only for too a short time.

According to the film's music scorer and close personal friend of Smith, Kevin Moyer, Heaven Adores You is slated, hopefully, for a spring 2015 release. As a fan of Elliott Smith (and film in general), I sincerely hope a savvy and intelligent studio picks this film up for wide release. This is quite simply a beautiful and moving film, filled with emotion, insight and, of course, Elliott Smith’s incredible music.

From it's sumptuous aerial and still photography, to its seemless editing, and those rare, unreleased songs (the hilarious and sweet "I Love My Room" in particular, which plays over the end credits, was written when Smith was 14 years-old), Heaven Adores You is one of the best independent documentary films I have seen (and on a deeper level, felt) in a very long time. A bittersweet and cathartic film, Heaven Adores You will leave you smiling through the tears.