Heaven Adores You, the new documentary celebrating the work and life of Elliott Smith, opens appropriately grim and muted, with the requisite interviews with close friends and associates who start to speak before trailing off into a meditative silence. Larry Crane, archivist for the Elliott Smith estate and the owner of Jackpot! Studios, which he built by hand with Smith, recalls the Oscar nomination of "Miss Misery": "I think it was the worst thing, in a way, that could have happened... actually," Crane says, and his eyes do the unfocusing thing, momentarily staring at a point in near distance.
This tone—aching, bereft, near-overcome with still-fresh regrets—will be familiar to anyone who has read books or articles about Elliott Smith since his death in 2003. An entire film of it would veer dangerously close to self-parody: Thankfully, Heaven Adores You quickly shakes off this pall and settles into a more familiar, affectionate tone. Nickolas Rossi, the director who funded Heaven Adores You through Kickstarter, immediately dials us back to Dallas, the town of his childhood, and we are confronted with dozens of pictures—Elliott Smith (born Steven Paul Smith) as a pudgy, grinning baby, face smeared with food; Elliott wearing shades and carrying his little sister Ashley on his back, her little hands joined at his neck; Elliott sitting at a keyboard in Steven "Pickle" Pickering's garage, his childhood friend with whom he composed multiple astonishingly complex prog-pop epics. They feel like healing correctives, and I would watch a 1,000-image slideshow of just young Elliott Smith grinning.
We hear some of this long-unheard music, too, courtesy of Pickering himself, who appears in the film, as does sister Ashley—whatever else it is, Heaven Adores You is an archival triumph, as well as one of access. Rossi has unearthed a trove of photographs, from professional photos shot by J.J. Gonson, manager for Elliott's first band Heatmiser and onetime girlfriend, as well from family members and friends. All of this rich life stuff spills across the screen, giving the film a lovely scrapbook feel; a lot of it might only be of interest to hardcore Elliott Smith fans, but for those fans, it is manna.
Nowhere is this more evident then the music, which plays continuously as a parade of talking heads from Smith's life recall the by-now familiar story of his travels from Portland, where he became a local hero, to New York, where he became something of a rock star, to L.A., where he stumbled headfirst into heroin addiction. As this timeline unfolds, we are treated to ceaseless gems: "Outward Bound", a song he wrote as a teenager moving from Texas to Portland, and a piano-based "I Am the Walrus" type thing, both pop up onscreen. The epic "I Love My Room", a song also dating back to early years, shows him trying out something vaguely King Crimson-ish.
Smith's life was a trail of tapes, and following it in Heaven Adores You is the film's greatest joy. Later, we hear earlier versions of what would become "Fear City", (here called, amusingly, "Don't Call Me Billy") and another teenaged composition, from his pre-Heatmiser band Murder of Crows. Earlier versions of what would become "Coast to Coast", reminding us that his music was a never-ending stream, constantly revising itself.
More impressively, Heaven Adores You coaxes a few of Elliott's more hesitant spokespeople into the frame. Joanna Bolme, his girlfriend circa Either/Or and the inspiration for "Say Yes", appears: "'Say Yes' is beautiful," she says wryly. "I wish the circumstances under which it had been delivered had been more ideal." Jon Brion, who gave Elliott a spiritual and artistic home in L.A. at his Largo club, also sits before the camera. "At one point, you know the person you loved is gone," he says, an oblique reference to Elliott's engulfing addiction.
If Heaven Adores You is frustrating in any way, it is in the way it treads around the dark places: Rossi, so eager to focus on and lift up the music, is almost excessively careful around the man. The film alludes to pivotal events, such as the intervention his friends staged on the Either/Or tour, only glancingly and omits many others entirely. Almost no one from the final stages of Elliott's life, from the time he was recording what would become his last album, From a Basement on the Hill, was interviewed. Shonn Sullivan, the guitarist who joined Elliott's band on the Figure 8 tour, shows up, but is hardly allowed to speak two words (this was around the time that hard drugs first definitively entered Elliott's life.)
The desire at work here—to redirect the focus from the darkness and reframe it around the light—is understandable, but Rossi's touch is so hesitant it almost brings the problem full circle. The film repeatedly opens into meditative shots of the streets of Portland, New York, and L.A. often, letting the camera's eye rest on underpass after squat neighborhood bar after alleyway while Smith's music plays. After awhile, the tactic begins to feel near-evasive—this is where all those other parts of the story would go, these scenes suggest, if we had told them.