As quiet and introspective as its subject could at times be, tonight’s film HEAVEN ADORES YOU is the latest in a series of Rialto Rockumentaries brought to you by The Sound, every Thursday night in December.
An almost-meditative paean of sorts to the life and music of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, it threads the music of the much-adored artist through the often isolating landscapes of the three major cities he lived in - Portland, New York City, Los Angeles – and is a beautiful watch.
A sometimes a little too earnest review of the singer's prolific songwriting and the impact it continues to have on fans, friends, and fellow musicians, it begins with a bummer – the death of Smith via suspected self-inflicted knife wounds to the heart in 2003. Smith, who was yanked into the mainstream by celebrity fans and an Oscar nomination (for the song ‘Miss Misery’ from Good Will Hunting), found fame difficult and was a reluctant ‘star’. Many say they weren’t surprised to hear that he had (supposedly) committed suicide. He was the "unhappiest man in the land" at times, making records for "the sad kids". And his gloom was more than posturing: when Smith sang about alcoholism or depression, he was singing about things he had experienced first-hand.
That is not to say the circumstances of his death were not shocking. Smith apparently had an argument with his girlfriend, fellow musician Jennifer Chiba, at their home in Silverlake, Los Angeles, a city he had been reluctant to even visit in his earlier career. As the row got worse, Smith threatened to commit suicide. He’d done that before, and had never followed through. Even when he decided to relocate from Portland to Brooklyn in the late 1990s, he said farewell to his Oregon friends by informing them that it was likely he would never see them again because he was "probably going to kill himself".
Chiba locked herself in the bathroom to take a shower, and then heard a bloodcurdling scream. Returning to the living room, she found Smith standing with his back to her. When he turned around, she saw a kitchen knife sticking out of his chest. Despite emergency surgery, he was pronounced dead 20 minutes after arriving at hospital. It is an extremely painful way to die, a last resort for people so low they no longer care about themselves. He was 34 years old.
But the film chooses not to dwell too long on Smith’s death, going back to his roots in Texas (a fact that surprised many due to the fact that he and his sound were so quintessentially Portland). After a move to Portland he joined a few bands, settling on hardcore punk band Heatmiser, with whom he had a modicum of success. It’s clear that his bandmates cared for him deeply, and when he went solo continued to support him. After his Oscar nomination he performed at the awards ceremony, between Celine Dion and Michael Bolton, but was unimpressed: "I threw myself into it because it seemed to make my friends happy," he said. "I don't particularly like hanging out with famous folks much because their lives are too weird."
He had dabbled in heroin and was a "bad alcoholic" while living in Portland, but after a move to New York his drug problems deepened. By the time he left for Los Angeles at the end of 1999, he was also using crack. Rumours abounded that he was now incapable of performing, that he had forgotten his own lyrics and nodded off onstage between songs. And yet, in the last year of his life, Smith was alleged to have turned things around, and the only drugs found in his system when he died were antidepressants and ADHD medication for which he had a prescription.
The coroner’s report on his death returned an open verdict; some even claimed he was murdered, which the film does not really address. What director Nickolas Rossi does address is how much he was loved – by friends and fans – and how much that love weighed on him. The man who was often described as “just a punk kid” and “a genius” was troubled, and it would have been tempting to end the film on a low note. Rossi chooses to focus on his legacy instead, with footage from benefit concerts that took place on what would have been Smith’s 44th birthday.
His music will undoubtedly live on, and if like me you are moved to rediscover it all over again, then long may the legend continue.
HEAVEN ADORES YOU premieres Thursday 14 December 8.30pm on Rialto Channel. A part of RIALTO ROCKUMENTARIES brought to you by THE SOUND.
Watch the trailer here