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AFI Docs Review: “Heaven Adores You”

Filmmaker Nickolas Rossi takes a look back at the life, career, and enduring legacy of the late musician Elliott Smith.

Photograph courtesy of AFI Docs.

To a punk band, is there any higher praise than a comparison to Fugazi? That’s what Heatmiser was to Portland, Oregon, in the early 1990s: a quartet of skilled musicians churning out memorable, poppy-but-not-lame tracks filled with soul-searching, melancholy lyrics.

This is how the late Elliott Smith’s former band is described early on in Heaven Adores You, a somber but weirdly redemptive look back at the singer/songwriter, who died in 2003.

Director Nickolas Rossi covers Smith’s death at the opening of his 96-minute elegy. It drips with sadness from Smith’s friends and former collaborators, but Rossi manages to steer away from maudlin hand-wrenching, not unlike Smith’s best songs. Contemporary interviews with those who knew Smith are mixed with archival performances and conversations with Smith, along with rain-streaked glimpses of Portland. Eleven years after Smith’s death, the myth-making and legacy-building of this remarkably gifted musician is largely complete, but to his biggest fans, Smith is still freshly mourned.

Smith’s biggest moment of exposure was at the Academy Awards in 1998, when he performed “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar after being featured in Good Will Hunting. (It lost, obviously, to Celine Dion’s Titanic ballad.) Smith never really recovered from his Hollywood moment, we learn. He became, to most, the weird-looking guy in the poorly fitting white suit.

“He just looked like a normal dude,” the photographer Autumn de Wilde says during the movie.

As first-time director Rossi shows throughout Heaven Adores You, there was little “normal” about Smith. Born Steven Paul Smith, he started calling himself “Elliott” a few years after his family moved from Oklahoma to Portland. Heatmiser emerged out of his days at Hampshire College, and quickly took over the Portland scene.

The Heatmiser footage shows a very different Smith from the brooding, lonesome artist we remember. As part of the band, Smith seemed a bit less morose, even if his lyrics never showed it. But Heatmiser was not built to last. Smith’s solo act didn’t fit the loud punk scene.

The thing about “Miss Misery” is that it was not originally written for Good Will Hunting. Smith’s fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant wanted to use one of his songs over the credits, and Smith furnished a song that might have otherwise been left unfinished.

And for all the discomfort it caused Smith, it paved the way for his last two studio albums, XO and Figure 8, to find broader audiences. “Waltz #2,” considered by many to be Smith’s best song, is a rollicking, biting, roadhouse tune about the struggles of being a lonesome artist. It plays multiple times during Heaven Adores You, and each cue is a fresh wound.

Rossi arrives at Smith’s growing struggles with depression and drug addiction. The hints were there before “Miss Misery,” but they spiraled afterward. Relocations to New York and then Los Angeles provided brief artistic respites until they began to exacerbate Smith’s problems. His closest friends saw him drifting further back.

Although commonly referred to as suicide, the manner of Smith’s death has never been declared officially by the Los Angeles coroner. What does seem confirmable is that no matter how warmly his music was received, Smith was not always suited to the attention. He might never have sought fame, but as a string of tribute shows staged last year demonstrate at the end of Rossi’s film, Smith will always be adored by many.

Screening Friday, June 20, 9:30 PM at AFI Silver Theatre, and Saturday, June 21, 6:15 PM at the Goethe-Institut

Return to AFI Docs page

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.