“Heaven Adores You” is a documentary about the late musician Elliott Smith, whose rise to fame and fortune ended abruptly when he died of an apparent suicide by self-inflicted stab wounds (whose case still remains open as the evidence was inconclusive) in 2003 at the tender ripe young age of 34. Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign back in 2011, after 4 long years in gestation, the film has finally been given a proper release. It’s the first documentary ever made of an artist whose work has not only had such a tremendous influence on me but legions of other fans both stateside and internationally as he rose from the indie scene of the early 90’s to worldwide fame towards the end of the decade, become arguably one of the greatest singer/songwriters of his generation. Through a series of interviews of close friends, family, and various other industry types, the film paints a probing portrait into a man whose music left a long-lasting imprint and whose music is still unquestionably influential on the industry a little over a decade after his death.
The film begins with an opening shot of Smith in a white suit performing onstage at the 70th Academy Awards in 1998 with his song “Miss Misery”, which was nominated for Best Original Song in Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” (1997). Through a series of radio interviews, Smith candidly talks about what this experience was like for him. Not only did it bring him international acclaim to someone at that point only recognized in the States, but it catapulted his career to a whole new platform in the music industry. The story then flashes back to Smith’s upbringing, born and raised in Dallas, TX, with his childhood looking like a seemingly fairly normal one. Smith shows a very early interest in the guitar, and begins writing and playing his own music at the age of 13. By 14, Smith had ditched what he called the “mundane” way of living in the suburbs of Dallas to Portland, OR, a city that had one of the most thriving music scenes in the country during this time and became the epicenter for the kind of music that Smith’s early career’s musical pursuits catered to. It depicts his early rise in the Portland music scene with his post-punk outfit Heatmiser, a band who after just two years he would leave to focus on his own music as a solo artist. It then shift gears a bit and focuses on Smith’s rise to fame as a solo artist and where he was at each point musically in the albums he would put out from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. With much attention to detail on his creative process, to his love life and relationships which he would touch on in his work (“Hey You”), his move from Portland to New York City (one that he says had more to do because of a failed relationship and his break from Heatmiser). A tough move as Portland viewed him as a staple of their music scene at the time and whose fans purchased 70% of his music, the other 30% spread out over ever other city in the U.S. To his reluctant move to Los Angeles. At which time he developed a very serious drug problem while battling what seemed like some pretty serious inner demons, something he would never get over and eventually succumb to and pass away from.
This was a remarkable tribute to the life and work of Smith which was both insightful and utterly fascinating. As someone who considers themselves well versed about his life I thought it shed light on a number of things about him, not only as an artist but a person, that I never would have known had it not been for this film. Another misconception that the film touches on is that Smith’s songs weren’t really about himself at all although many people thought they were. According to Smith, the tragic characters in which he sang about in his songs were merely “archetypes” (as he refers to them as). I also liked how they focused a lot of attention on the Oscar nomination and what impact this had on him. Smith talks about the experience as a rather surprisingly humbling one. And in the process of doing so, shows a side of his sense of humor. He says he mostly took everything in stride, and realized that despite the attention, he was still a small fish in a big pond. I found myself laughing out loud when he talks about the fact that the Oscar organizers didn’t want him to walk the ride carpet. But he chose to do so instead, only to go unnoticed as he coincidentally showed up at the same time as Madonna. The ones closest to him talk about the fact that while although from the outside he seemed to not like the experience or the accolades he was given, on the inside he truly felt a sense that he had finally made it which brought him a new found confidence that he had never had up to that point. I thought this portion of the film was nicely well done. As was its inevitable conclusion, where Smith starts using heroin and begins to delve into the dark side. I had always thought Smith was a long time drug user, but it really wasn’t until around the time that he hit 30, a mere 3 years before his death, that he started to using drugs. It’s unflinching in its depiction of the last chapter of his life, and isn’t overly sympathetic which I thought was a brilliant decision on its part is it easily could have fallen into a melodramatic, “heroin is bad” anti drug movie. They simply leave it at “it was what it was”. He just got deeply immersed in a lifestyle that would ultimately be his demise. The films ends on a rather poignant note, with moving footage of tributes that were done in his honor in 2013, a decade after his death. This was an extremely well done, comprehensive and deeply affecting look at one of my favorite artists who left us far too early. By the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and it was met by a seated ovation from just about everyone in the theater. This wound up being one of the greatest testaments of an artist whose influence and legacy will live on to inspire decades to come.