The late GenX alterna-icon’s songs are the true stars of a new documentary—filmmaker Nickolas Rossi explains why.
“I was driving across the country to Portland in 1996, and listening to a mixtape someone made me ” explains filmmaker Nickolas Rossi. “I heard ‘Satellite’ and immediately grabbed the case, trying to figure out who it was. I’d never heard anything like that before.” So began Rossi’s introduction to Elliott Smith and a synchronistic journey that led him to make Heaven Adores You, a visually arresting and musically revealing documentary devoted to the life and art of indie rock’s beloved, fallen singer-songwriter.
Arriving in Portland in the mid-’90s, Rossi got acquainted very quickly with Heatmiser, the alternative band Smith concurrently performed and recorded with while emerging as a solo artist. “And then I remember reading in Willamette Week that ‘hometown hero’ Elliott Smith was leaving Portland and moving to New York. I didn’t know why they would report something like that, but I noticed it because I was leaving, too, and going about my life,” he explains. Rossi went on to work in film as a cinematographer.
Smith of course also took the opportunity to break from Portland to set out on a life journey of his own. His 1994 album, Roman Candle had first brought Smith to light as one of the premier songwriters, alongside Beck, of his generation. His facility with melody, the poetic, sometimes illusory but always heartfelt words, even if they were bold and embittered, were fully realized on albums like Either/Or and XO. But the maker of such gorgeousness as “Ballad of Big Nothing” and “Waltz #2 (XO)” was suffering, slowing sinking into the abyss and under the weight of substance abuse, depression, and a profound ambivalence to his tremendous success. Smith, born on August 6, 1969, in Omaha, Nebraska, would’ve been 45 this month had he not died, reportedly by his own hand on October 21, 2003 (an inquiry into the circumstances of his death remains unresolved).
“I was living in Los Angeles and heard the news, Elliott Smith died,” says Rossi, pictured above. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s the guy from Portland,” remembers Rossi. That day, a crowd started to form at the mural on the side of a Silverlake audio store, the backdrop of the photo on Smith’s album Figure 8. “I didn’t think anyone knew him, and I went down to the Solutions wall where there was a makeshift memorial happening and I thought it was kinda weird. I wondered ‘Are all these people from Portland?’”
He shot some footage and cut an impromptu memorial, posting it on YouTube, “And it started getting all this response from places like South Africa, Israel, Sweden, Australia…” Literally millions of hits later Rossi realized what Smith’s devoted fans and admirers knew full well: “This guy we knew, who played in small venues in a punk rock band, had made a global impact.”
“When Elliott passed away it was hard to see all the sensationalism and the media surrounding it,” explains the film’s co-producer and music supervisor Kevin Moyer, an old high school friend of Smith’s. “It was hard to hear about and hard to talk about, but one thing that stood out in the clutter was this YouTube video of the memorial wall, set to ‘The Biggest Lie,’” he explains, referring to Rossi’s tribute. “It was the only thing in all the horribleness that was beautiful.” Fast forward to years later when Nickolas started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the movie, “I thought that clip was also really beautiful and connected the dots…it was the same guy who did the memorial wall video.”
With his background in the Portland scene, it was natural that Moyer be pulled in as the film’s music supervisor. “It was important that the film be beautiful. JT (Jeremiah Gurzi) and Nickolas did the cinematography and it’s amazing,” says Moyer. “I would never assume anything could make Elliott’s music better, but I think the imagery even brings it up a bit—even though that may be blasphemous to say.”
The quality of the cinematography, outside the usual talking heads and archival clips, is what makes Heaven Adores You in many respects a unique music documentary. Long after viewing, it’s the glimmering outdoor shots—natural and urbanscapes filling the screen and glistening as Smith’s haunting songs unspool at length—that linger. Rossi was very conscious of constructing a film (which made its debut at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival) that lived up to the essence of Smith’s luminescent music.
“You have to honor the music by making sure the visuals are on a par with the music,” explains Rossi. “The first time we heard Elliott’s music with images was with Good Will Hunting,” he says. “Gus Van Sant is a really talented filmmaker and so it just fit perfectly—they deserved each other.” Rossi aspired to a similar unity between sound and image.
Smith was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for “Miss Misery,” his contribution to Good Will Hunting and it was his Academy Awards appearance that provided Rossi with his jumping off point for Heaven Adores You: “We knew there was a beginning and an end to the story,” he says, “And there was also this point that everything changed… Most of the people who were exposed to Elliott Smith probably knew him from Good Will Hunting, the Academy Awards, the white suit, so we decided, why don’t we start there.”
It’s safe to say, the hardcore Smith fan is seeking something more than natural beauty and images of the public Smith in any documentary about his life; there is also plenty on offer, even for the well-schooled Smith fan, in the new film.
“Going into the archives, Elliott’s got so many different versions of songs,” explains Moyer who received cooperation from Smith recording engineer and archivist Larry Crane and producer Rob Schnapf. “There’s a song by Elliott’s band Stranger Than Fiction [which evolved into Murder of Crows, Harem Scarem and Heatmiser]. We know it as “Three” but you’re hearing the song that would become “King’s Crossing” 15 years later. Only the hardcore fan is going to know that,” says Moyer.
“There was one song, ‘Shotgun,’ that had three fully different versions—his high school band, Heatmiser and him redoing it, adding to it, and finally releasing it.” The filmmakers promise other revelatory moments of Smith artistry. “If you’re a fan, you’re going to go, ‘Oh, that guitar riff turned into this song (“Fear City”),’” notes Moyer.
Fans will also be happy to note that some of Smith’s Heatmiser bandmates as well as musical peers and close allies like musician Joanna Bolme, producer Jon Brion, and photographer Autumn de Wilde, appear in the film, among other friends and fellows. However Smith’s bandmates Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, aka the duo Quasi, stuck by their decision to sit out all discussions on the subject. But, says Rossi, “They did not discourage us.” Smith’s sister, Ashley Welch, makes a brief appearance too though the film mostly steers off personal and family details in favor of the bigger picture.
“Elliott didn’t like to talk about his family and we didn’t want to either,” said Rossi. “They weren’t in any band with him or mixing his records,” says Moyer. “The film’s about music.”
Providing a snapshot of an era in rock ‘n’ roll and the music business that no longer really exists, as beautiful and iconoclastic as it is, Heaven Adores You succeeds as a story about an artist, albeit a tragic and short-lived life, set at the tail end of what may be remembered as the traditional music business.
“All that discussion, about how he tuned his guitar, I’d love to make that available, but we had to open up the film for the people who don’t know him, and not get lost in the details,” says Rossi. The details can of course be found in the two and three minute worlds composed by Smith, waiting to be discovered by generations to come. Rossi has simply provided another lens from which to see and ultimately hear Elliott Smith’s fragile but enduring songs.
Denise Sullivan is the author of the forthcoming Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, out Sept. 1. She previously published books on the White Stripes and R.E.M. as well as 2011’s Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip Hop—go here to read our interview with her from around the time of its publication.