Nickolas Dylan Rossi / US / 2014 / 105 mins
Heaven Adores You, the first comprehensive film to document and celebrate the life and talent of Elliott Smith, opens to the sound of an intimate interview with the musician. There is no gentle upsurge of music to ease the audience in, just the voices of Smith and interviewer. An appropriately hesitant and sombre tone is immediately set as director Nickolas Dylan Rossi attempts to unveil this mysterious figure through the thoughts of friends and family. However, even those who were closest to Smith are often lost for words, left gazing off-screen in contemplative silence and leaving audiences questioning whether anyone really knew who Elliott Smith was.
Although Rossi initially creates a mood of sadness, death and misery, soon thereafter he transports his audience to Smith’s childhood in Dallas. Compiling a scrapbook of his life – the images capture a laughing baby, sibling affection between Smith and his sister Ashley, and a happy teen making music at his keyboard with friends – this portrait is far removed from the grim memories that often linger after the death of someone who struggled with fame and fought addictions. Here, Rossi makes clear his quest to celebrate Smith’s life and focus on his music, rather than being plagued by the underlying sadness that Smith carried with him.
However, since Smith’s demons are so heavily apparent in his lyrics, they are tricky to escape entirely. In “King’s Crossing” he sings ‘I can’t prepare for death anymore than I already have’, hinting towards his untimely death and alleged suicide. Although Rossi is attempting to focus on the joy of Smith’s music, in doing so he avoids answering the questions that fans so often ask. Heaven Adores You tiptoes around the drug problem and depression, and in doing so merely skims the surface of some aspects of Smith’s life. It gives audiences a glimpse of a talented man who faced some sort of dark torment, but never explains why, or reveals anything new. He is still a mystery.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that distinguishes this documentary from others; essentially it is a collection of unrevealing interviews with Smith’s friends and family, dispersed amongst some rare footage of Smith and sound clips. The most engaging moments occur when Smith himself is narrating. The film is full of pauses and empty spaces – interviewees trailing off and interludes where the camera travels through urban landscapes. These gaps give the audience a chance to ask questions, but sometimes they are left to contemplate the underpasses and alleyways that the camera lingers on for slightly too long. Still, there is much beauty in these bleak shots of Portland, New York and Los Angeles. Motifs of isolation run through the film as the camera pans over empty streets, silent forests and industrial wasteland. These offer subtle comment on Smith’s life and give a taste of the influences that helped to create his beautifully sad music.