“I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous” – Elliott Smith’s response to an interviewer at the beginning of the Kickstarter-funded Heaven Adores You sets the tone for a documentary that takes a more analytical approach to a life that has been more traditionally viewed through an overtly nostalgic and mournful lens. It isn’t to say that Nickolas Rossi’s film doesn’t view Smith’s life and premature death as tragic. It does; and Rossi traces the narrative of Smith’s simultaneous descent into a stark loneliness and ascent to stardom, however, at the core of the documentary, these events are placed within an intricately positioned and painstakingly researched realm of inquiry. The ability of the director to articulate these deeply emotional elements of Smith’s life alongside the broader commentary his story evokes on a more universal level makes Heaven Adores You the most comprehensive study of Smith’s life to date.
The focus os the film is unashamedly concerned with Smith’s career, his music and his development as a songwriter. Rossi aims to look at Smith’s legacy through what at times can be an overly positive lens, but never a stale perspective. The film centers itself around Elliott Smith’s Oscar performance of Miss Misery, using it as a compass to constantly dictate the direction of the film throughout. For Rossi, the harsh contrast between the humble and reluctant Smith and the vapidity of Hollywood reaches its zenith in this performance. The conflicts that define Elliott Smith’s life and music are never better evinced than here and Rossi’s decision to constantly return to this footage to drive deeper into Smith’s character grounds the film in a sense of emotional and philosophical inquiry.
There’s a marked trend in musical documentaries to often exploit the works of their topic to create emotion and development within. While the creation of the artist should always be present in a work studying them, leaning on their output to draw the viewer in often feels lazy and bypasses actual effort on the part of the documentarian. Rossi uses an abundant amount of Smith’s music, however, he examines the music he chooses – it’s relevance to Smith’s life; how it informed a relationship; a brief moment of conflict, or perhaps a major shift in the approach to music – it’s never simply here to prompt an emotional response from the audience. For that, Rossi assembles a range of interviewees to discuss Smith; wherein he includes several high profile names (Autumn De Wile, Jon Brion) but doesn’t discriminate to a degree where more intimate, lesser-known voices could have been drowned out.
The documentary is an inquiry – a survey, even – but it is simultaneously highly intimate in its nature. Throughout technical recounts of recording with Smith, interacting with him on tour, or even just reflecting on a friendship with the musician, the interviewees often reveal the films most poignant reflections in a significantly casual, relaxed and sweet manner.“We just stayed up all night – and it was just me and him – it was just a really cool, because it’s that quiet of the night. There’s nothing going on. I still hear it when I listen to that song. That’s a memory I get.” In a way, stories like this are what drag the documentary away from being fairly dry factual survey. Heaven Adores You is not an emotional documentary and is focused primarily on presenting Smith in a light that removes him from the way in which he has been popularly presented. All this is framed within a dense exoskeleton of intimate, personal, and humanising memories that reconstruct the myth of Elliott Smith – away from the narrative of a tortured soul towards something more complex, detailed and unique.
Heaven Adores You is the latest in a range of Kickstarter documentaries that are reaching global festival stages. In doing so, the flexibility and relevance of crowd funding in cinema is becoming increasingly mainstream – the triumph of Heaven Adores You only further cements this. The film was made on a 15,000 grant from donations to the Kickstarter account. That said, there’s nothing discernibly less professional in the documentary compared to others produced on larger budgets. In fact, the nature of crowd funding such a film has allowed the film to reach out and include various intimate details and stories of Smith’s life which might not have received the same attention with a larger budget film – and these are often the films strongest moments.
At the same time, the documentary doesn’t feel like one for fans already intimate with Elliott Smith. It’s a documentary both analytical and summative, but it isn’t something that digs deeper than many dedicated Smith fans are likely to have already done. Rossi doesn’t romanticise Smith’s death, nor does he try to portray it as an inevitability. It’s tragic; it’s sudden; and it marks the end of a life too soon, but the documentary doesn’t linger on it. It’s concerned with Smith’s life, and his music rather than his death. As one figure says, “hopefully someday we can all get past the drama, the tabloid news aspects of his life and just start to focus on what he created” another follows “his heart would be broken to think that people discover him and think that he’s just super bummed because it was a very small fraction of who he really was.” Together in some capacity, these statements cut to what Heaven Adores You aims to do as a documentary: to tear down the perception of Elliott Smith as a drug-addled, tortured soul, and to rebuild a more wholesome and truthful portrayal of a figure who was far more intricate and nuanced.
The documentary fails in digging deeper than Smith’s loyal fans have in the past, but it emphasises the universality of his music in its decision to do so. Moments of poignant reflection – “nothing was sader than hearing the songs he hadn’t sung yet”, “it’s just forever silent” – resound with the audience, however, more personal intimate relationships with Smith have been left out of the documentary on the whole and strangely it seems to work well this way. Rather than positioning Heaven Adores You as a film that attempts to reveal rare facts about Elliott Smith or romanticise his life as part of a teleological descent into depression and addiction, Rossi creates something that focuses on Smith’s legacy, his universality and the drives home the view that his music is going to be around far longer than mythologies surrounding his drug use, personality and his death. Rossi has created a remarkably refreshing look at Smith in his decision to do this, and whilst it isn’t likely satiate die hard fans, Heaven Adores You is both a respectful and satisfying study of a singer-songwriter who has often received neither.