Heaven Adores You is a documentary that started out as a kick starter a few years ago, most of the production was done in 2012-2013, but it's not the first attempt to catalogue the life and death of Oscar nominated singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. An unauthorized biography "Ballad Of Nothing" was condemned by people close to Smith and by fans for perhaps morbidly focusing on the substance abuse and downfall of the artist. Heaven Adores You set out to be different. The filmmakers had the consent and blessings of Elliott Smith's sister, his childhood friends, past managers, old band mates and basically the people who have all the best pieces of his incredible and long winded short story. The documentary also made good on its promise to deliver never before heard, unreleased tracks.
Elliott Smith's often associated with addiction, suicide and depression...labels this documentary attempts to prove Elliott did not agree with or enjoy. Regardless, as far as most people are concerned, the word "sad" is written with crack and heroin all over everything to do with Elliott Smith in big, bleeding capital letters. Know that going into the movie, but "hope" is written too. There are incredibly jovial and overjoyous themes and tones in all of the guy's music; they don't always shine through the melancholy, but this is an artist who has songs you can listen to a hundred times without taking away the same impression twice, and the documentary works because it delivers a similar sensation.
The film Heaven Adores You begins strong, showing rare interview clips and then letting people involved in Elliott Smith's childhood tell us about the man's upbringing. (Side note, Elliott Smith had a friend from the 6th grade nicknamed 'Pickles', who has one of the funniest talking voices I've heard in a long time.) The first part of the documentary is probably the most rewarding. I mean we were kind of all in this to see clips of Elliott Smith as a tiny child right? Well they have it. Another thing you'll notice right off the bat is this documentary paid no regards to gimmicks, effects, or any kind of stimulus that can often be found making documentaries more engaging if less focused. If anything, this film is sometimes filling the screen with irrelevant and kind of slide show-y images while interviews or music plays, but I'd rather look at a still picture for a minute while listening to an interview than watch some weirdly high budget cartoon sequence [Ed. Note: I think you might be throwing shade at Montage of Heck here, Max].
And again, almost right off the bat the documentary gives us a single from Elliott Smith's days in high school, a new track called "I Love My Room" that was recorded in 1983 or 1984, which would've made him about 15 or 16 years old. It's a simply amazing and confounding song. I'll tell you now, if you want to watch the documentary to hear brand new, super underground Elliott Smith tracks, than just look up that song. Unfortunately it's just about the only brand new Elliott Smith song this movie provides. Just about everything else has been online for a while, which is inevitable. This, and a part of a song called "Outward Bound" are mostly the only never before heard tracks in Heaven Adores You. But this wasn't supposed to be an album; it's a movie, and it's a very telling and worthy watch.
One of the major joys of Heaven Adores You is listening to early fans, friends and co-workers talk about how Elliott Smith's music has always affected them...descriptions of sold out venues where you could hear a pin drop. One producer Elliott worked with describes the first time he was ever shown "Waltz #1" as one of the times "he (Elliott) really freaked me out a musician." And there's fear in his eyes. You can see the effect the song had on this producer, it's visible. Around here in the movie, things start taking predictable but not boring turns. The film starts cataloguing Elliott's discography, describing the changes between albums, the cities Elliott moved between, and his various relationships. One manager's story in particular stands out. When Elliott was touring, he had already begun drinking heavily and this one woman he allegedly called just about every night, while he was miserably belligerent and shit faced, climaxing in an email she woke up to one day from him that read "I'm sorry, please don't be mad if I ever do anything to myself."
By now, most of this is par for the course -- where did he live, who did he hang out with, what was he like and what did he do. What really disappointed me at this juncture was the sort of brush past his childhood. His parents are rarely even referenced, and the entire film does not once touch on the theory that Elliott as a child was sexually abused by his stepfather (a theory fairly strongly supported by some lyrics of unreleased material). This is a topic that would make Elliott's spiral into drug abuse much less 'out of nowhere' and unwarranted than it comes off as in the film. But you can't have it both ways, you can't have a documentary that shows off the ultra rare and raw personal works and things of an artist you can only get from their estate while at the same time fully exploring and giving worth to all of the twisted conspiracy theories which put that same estate in a horrible, criminal light.
The rest of the movie is wrenching as it leads to a tragically familiar and mysterious ending. Live performances, interviews, friends and family, it was almost all I asked for. I remember when this movie was a kickstarter and my heart leapt when I found it online. It's not an album of never before heard Elliott Smith songs, and it's not a jilted opinion piece that accuses anybody close to Elliott Smith of any of the horrible things many fans think they have done. It is a sincere documentary that pries at the art of an incredible artist. It provides an honest and thorough look at the man's life, beautiful stories and incredible music, and Heaven Adores You navigates his art better than any other book or film has done so far. It seemed to have a sort of uncertainty to it, while it tried to service long term dedicated fans, it also seemed to try and encourage accessibility and allow people who aren't already huge fans to enjoy the movie. Maybe I just know too much about Elliott Smith already, but I was ready for the really dark stuff and the really raw stuff. I'll still wait on some stuff like that but either way.