In perhaps the most revealing moment in Nickolas Rossi’s Heaven Adores You, there is footage of Elliott Smith’s uncomfortable performance at the Academy Awards in 1998, just when he was at the height of popularity. It’s a ridiculous scene- Smith is forced into a silly, maudlin version of what is in fact one of his better songs, and is refused a request to play seated, as he’d so often done before. Instead, the stage moves as if to partition itself for him, as he sings in a white suit- inaudibly, at first- for an audience which had never before heard his name. The Oscars, after all, and all else like it are antithetical to anything of lasting value, and although Smith’s two minutes of music were the only thing of note in a ceremony dedicated to one of the worst films ever made, it is an open question as to what will be more remembered: the irony of Smith’s appearance, or the fact that Titanic snagged eleven awards, beating out Smith’s “Miss Misery” in the process.
And yet, despite everything one might say about this performance, it is only incidental to Rossi’s film. In fact, there would be no way to direct a biopic on Elliott Smith’s life without at least touching on the commercial high point of Smith’s career. To praise its inclusion, then, as a deft and meaningful narrative choice would be to miss the point. Put another way, there is no pathos Heaven Adores You must at all work for- it was simply handed to Rossi, purely by happenstance, just as Smith’s music was handed to Rossi, making the film’s worst missteps all the more fantastic, and predictable. How? It’s simple, really- for if one assumes that merely having access to great things guarantees their articulation, one is already doomed to fail. No doubt that Rossi and everyone the film showcases- friends, critics, relatives, former bandmates, and others- respect Smith’s work and implicitly understand its value. More pertinent, however, is the fact that no one- not even once- says anything remotely insightful about it, with Rossi thus crafting a trite hagiography of the misunderstood, suicidal artist, as talking-heads praise Smith’s music in the most bland terms.
Perhaps Rossi’s biggest narrative faux pas comes just a few minutes into the film. After a solid introduction, where footage shows Elliott Smith claiming he is “the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” it is quickly ruined by a sinister baseline which is made to end Smith’s words, thus leading the viewer by the nose into a banal narrative that will control much of the film. And, sure enough, this soon gives way to images of Smith’s Figure 8 mural in Los Angeles, covered in flowers, messages, and commemorative graffiti, as those who knew him at the time of his 2003 death recall their shock at hearing the news. But why spend one’s narrative capital so early, and eliminate all ambiguity in the … Continue reading →