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 process? Maybe Rossi felt it was best to get the ‘thing’ out of the way, first, as to not burden the remainder with what the viewer knows must come. But all this does is burden the film twice: once at the beginning, as if death were somehow salient to Smith’s artistry, and then for the next ninety minutes, as the viewer is forced to examine everything about Smith- no matter how immaterial- through this lens.
This is a documentary, however, and so narrative decisions can only be a portion of its success or failure. The other is the information it chooses to impart, and whether the viewer will go away with a richer understanding of the topic at hand. And there are places where Heaven Adores You does a good job, as far as information goes: there are glimpses of youth, of Smith’s early music and both his changing aesthetic sense as well as deepening talent, revelations about his personal life and the way he fused real events with fiction for a more compelling memoir- assuming, of course, that the speaker(s) in Smith’s songs really are Elliott Smith, an easy mistake to make given the ‘confessional’ nature of the writing. Of particular interest is the fate of Heatmiser, a punk band Smith co-founded in 1991, and which seems to still be known, today, due to its relation to the only musician on its roster who’d win acclaim. The fact that Smith’s talent was readily acknowledged at a time when his bandmates were still struggling to differentiate themselves from so many other groups helped speed their dissolution, and there is a tension- a grudging acceptance, even- in the film whenever Heatmiser gets the opportunity to speak. There are not very many public looks into artistic rivalry, and its inclusion here is useful for anyone who wishes to see how such things might play out.
The issue is when Rossi goes beyond these details- unexpected as some of them might be- into what ought to have been at the very core of the film: that is, the why and the how of Elliott Smith’s talent, rather than the platitudes the viewer is forced to sit through. Listener- do you recall Smith’s terrific “Waltz #2 (XO),” in which he takes a bittersweet melody and lets it loose against increasingly self-deprecating songwriting? Do you remember how- even more boldly- he himself admits exactly what he’s doing, right at the very moment the song ‘turns’? No? Well, that’s because Heaven Adores You does nothing to remind you of such craft. What about Smith’s “Between the Bars,” which has become his most representative song? The melody changes without warning while still remaining quite seamless; the song ends on what appears to be a non-ending, though it is in fact the only logical ending; the sweetness is actually not, but it doesn’t matter, for trust and belief are already etched in against the listener’s better judgment. Yet the film does not tackle it in any meaningful way. Nor does it mention what is perhaps Elliott Smith’s best-written song, “Memory Lane,” despite various talking-heads praising the otherwise mediocre final album on which it appears:
This is the place you end up when you lose the chase
Where you’re dragged against your will from a basement on the hill
And all anybody knows is you’re not like them
And they kick you in the head and send you back to bed
Isolation pulled you past a tunnel
To a bright world where you can make a place to stay
But everybody’s scared of this place, they’re staying away
Your little house on Memory Lane
The mayor’s name is fear
His force patrols the pier
From a mountain of cliché
That advances every day
The doctor spoke a cloud
He rained out loud
You’ll keep your doors and windows shut
And swear you’ll never show a soul again
But isolation pushes you ’til every muscle aches
Down the only road it ever takes
But everybody’s scared of this place, they’re staying away
Your little house on Memory Lane
Can those involved with the film even parse these words? Do they understand why it works that Smith does the counter-intuitive thing- the bizarre thing- in so overpacking his sentences, going off-rhythm, yet deepening the import of their surrounds? What about the inversion of memory from something akin to nostalgia (supported, in typical Smith fashion, by the song’s sound) into something to be altogether avoided? Not to mention the wonderful personification in the first four lines of the second verse- yet I mention it, nonetheless, because Heaven Adores You has its own strategies for dealing with Smith’s oeuvre.
On watching him play: “his hand was moving, and the music coming out was perfect.” The songs were “awesome.” Smith, himself, was “magic,” and “if you didn’t know you were standing next to genius, then you weren’t paying attention.” Of one performance: “it was- oh my God!” More articulately, Smith “freaked me out, as a musician.” From A Basement on the Hill is “beautiful, beautiful music…he’s alive in there!” He was “great,” he was “wonderful,” “brilliant,” “interesting,” and yet- apparently- also a complete and utter void that needed to be filled with modifiers rather than picked apart by genuine analysis. In one especially confusing moment, Smith’s appearance at the Academy Awards is taken as “vindication,” but why? “We won,” it’s explained, “it was a collective win for all of us, who were into this kind of music.” Yet the deeper point is that “this kind of music”- emo-level confessionalism- had mostly been (and still is) complete garbage, until Elliott Smith revealed a few artistic tricks that the vindicated cannot bring themselves to treat with respect. Worse still is the idea that mere popularity can ever get them there- that Smith, singing the best song of the night to an unappreciative audience, and who would go on to lose to Celine Dion, only to fizzle out as an artist soon after he’d found his heights, is in any way a “vindication”. Is this harsh to at least a portion of Elliott Smith’s legacy? Perhaps, but it is also an honest appraisal of his life’s work, and to think that endless adjectives and beatification are more respectful of art than a more comprehensive truth is something only a non-artist- or a bad artist- could think.
And yet, I still feel the need to return to that strange performance, just as everyone in the film does. I do not know what it is they notice (and, after listening to them, I simply do not care) but I find it telling that Smith’s first few words are muffled, and imbue it with a meaning all my own. I notice that he walks towards the stage far more quickly than he otherwise might, all because he’s giving into demands, here, that he seemed to ignore from those who actually once gave a damn. And, of course, I notice how over-orchestrated this arrangement of the song is, and wonder what Elliott Smith must have felt as his song- really, the only version that should have been played- was thus smothered. They wanted, naturally, to take something away from him, to make him more palatable, but that’s only to be expected. Far worse is how his supporters got involved in a project to do the same exact thing, which only pretends to do otherwise by running this process- this sifting by blind hands, and even blinder refinement- in reverse.