by Elliot Davies
Nickolas Rossi’s meditative chronicle of late great musician Elliott Smith gets a rare UK screening at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.
Heaven Adores You opens with footage of Elliott Smith playing Miss Misery at the 1998 Academy Awards. Alone on the cavernous stage with his white suit and guitar, he looks like a total anachronism – as though he’d rather be anywhere else.
It’s proposed that the Oscar nomination, and all the accompanying fame, was perhaps the worst thing that could possibly have happened to Elliott Smith.
Yet – and this is the disappointing part – it’s never quite explained why.
This sequence is followed by footage of the Figure 8 graffiti in Los Angeles, with shaky, blurry close-ups of the many, many, many tributes adorning it.
Because that’s what this film is. It’s not a documentary. It’s an elegy.
Using a combination of archive footage, photographs, recordings, and interviews, Heaven Adores You presents an oral history of Elliott Smith’s music career. His youth and young manhood – and even his death – are glossed over. Instead, the focus is very much on the music.
Specifically, the recording and the performing of the music. There’s no attempt to deduce just where these beautiful songs came from, or how they came to be written. Nor is there much time to explore Elliott Smith – the man. Yes, the various friends, acquaintances, promoters, and touring musicians are unanimous in painting Elliott as a broody yet friendly genius, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that.
Perhaps Elliott was simply so quiet, so reserved, and so private that even those who were closest to him had no idea what was going on inside.
His tense childhood relationship with his stepdad, about which such haunting songs as 2:45am were reportedly written, is skimmed over in fewer than 10 words. The relationships that birthed such painfully intimate love songs as Say Yes are also treated as background affairs.
Sometimes, Heaven Adores You feels like the detailed liner notes from a deluxe retrospective box-set – it’s all about the how, but less concerned about the why. Those looking for insight are sure to be disappointed.
And yet, this is doubtlessly exactly the film they wanted to make. Partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Heaven Adores You is clearly a labour of love. Perhaps the intention was never to delve into Elliott’s inner life, as doing so would run the risk of shattering the compelling mythology of his music. Maybe the whole point was to provide a focal point for fans who can’t make it to the Figure 8 memorial in LA – a graceful, meditative memorial where we can reflect together, in peace.
Director Nickolas Rossi’s background is in cinematography, and he’s punctuated the talking heads with atmospheric shots of strangely deserted cityscapes – Portland, LA, and New York.
It’s as if he’s allowing the audience – who he knows will be composed almost entirely of fans – to be alone with their thoughts.
Heaven Adores You does not currently have a release date for broadcast, digital downloads, or DVD. Check the film’s official websites for news on when this might change.