Film Review: Heaven Adores You
I should preface this review by saying that it will not be subjective at all; Elliott Smith is my favourite musician of all time, and I was bound to enjoy any documentary on his life. However, even with that in mind, Heaven Adores You, which I was fortunate enough to see at the Leeds International Film Festival, is a terrific documentary which gives personal insight into an enigmatic, often-misunderstood musician through stories from his friends and family, whilst at the same time telling a fascinating and ultimately heart-breaking story.
Elliott Smith has always been a mysterious figure in music. He wrote beautiful but painful lyrics which he often claimed were “not autobiographical”; he played sell out shows and performed at the Oscars but claimed he was the “wrong type of person to be famous”; and in 2003, after finally conquering the drug and alcohol dependency that had ruined his life, died in suspicious circumstances (coroners have never determined if it was suicide or murder). Heaven Adores You has a lot of light to shed on his background and personality, and there’s a strong case that the filmmakers do capture his spirit. Rather than show us the destructive side of Elliott, however, the film focuses more on the human being, the man who went from recording his first album in a friend’s basement to appearing on every late night talk show going.
Archive footage and audio from his early years gives us an interesting look at his burgeoning talent, and it is in this section that the film is at its most enlightening, as early collaborators and band members recall fondly that he was writing and performing for as long as they can remember. While the section covering his 90’s rock band Heatmiser drags a little (there just isn’t an exciting enough story to fully engage with), once the film reaches his solo career and success, there is plenty of valuable insight and information from a wide range of interview subjects. His sister discusses the unhappy home life that lead the way to a number of his most popular songs, his manager tells the story of first hearing Elliott in a small bar where the crowd paid no attention, and musician Jon Brion relates how it felt to be the first person to listen to Elliott’s commercial breakthrough XO.
Despite some quality footage of rare live performances and behind-the-scenes music video shoots, some of the interview and television footage is disappointing in how famous it already is. The main interview which is repeatedly shown throughout the film is one of the most popular Elliott Smith clips on youtube and it seems odd that such a widely known, accessible clip would be a main crux of the film. This won’t be a problem to those unfamiliar with Elliott or just casual fans, but any serious fans are likely to have seen a fair amount of the material on display. Similarly, many of the stories and anecdotes told by his friends and family have already been covered in detail by a range of magazine articles, so there isn’t a huge amount of new information for the obsessives. Meanwhile, the repeated shots of Elliott’s hometown of Portland (as well as New York and LA) are beautifully filmed but slightly repetitive; some more archive footage or even just showing more of the interviews would have been a more dynamic way of holding the audience’s attention.
It could be said that the film is one-sided and this is fair to an extent; Elliott Smith was not a perfect person and there are many damning stories or episodes from his life that could have been brought up to give a more rounded account of who he was. The film touches on his unhappiness at his friends holding an intervention and the bitterness it caused, as well as showing live performances when his heroin addiction was at its worst, but ultimately his drug addiction feels glazed over, as if director Nickolas Rossi wanted to play it safe to avoid causing offence.
Not covering Elliott’s darker moments is understandable; the film was always described as “a tribute” and a love letter to Elliott Smith, and as a tribute, it succeeds. Hearing and seeing so many of his greatest songs on the big screen was a rare treat that was immensely enjoyable for both myself and many other fans in attendance, and seeing the man himself was a wonderful experience. Though it plays it safe and avoids anything too controversial (his spiral into drug addiction, relationship with his stepdad and the circumstances of his death aren’t covered in any great detail), Heaven Adores You is still a lovingly crafted, superbly shot documentary that can’t quite produce enough new material for the diehard fans, but does offer enough unheard recordings, excellent live footage and relevant interview subjects to be a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable retrospective.
By Harry Ford