Nickolas Rossi's documentary Heaven Adores You focuses on the life and music of singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. Unlike most documentaries or biographies about the artist, this movie doesn't really intrude his personal life, trying to analyse his weaknesses or solve an enigma. Smith is introduced as a regular man with his flaws, but mostly, an outstanding talent and a great sense of humour.
The movie starts with footages of the Figure 8 mural in Los Angeles, where fans payed tribute to the late artist after he passed away on the 21st of October 2003. The story is narrated by Smith's friends and relatives, but also by the subject himself, with that very unique and distinguishable voice of his.
The approach is chronological, starting with his step-sister Ashley Welch talking about their life growing up in Dallas, illustrated by childhood photos of - back then - Steven Smith, displaying quite comic facial expressions. We also get to hear one of his many unreleased compositions featured in the movie. 'I love my room' is a very innocent song he wrote around the age of 13 or 14, yet it is already pretty impressive and promising.
After the childhood in Texas, the director takes us to Portland, Oregon where Elliott Smith spent his teenage years. The viewer explores Smith's high school while his bandmate Tony Lash talks about Heatmiser. They played quite loud rock together, and released three albums before Elliott Smith pulled out, feeling the music was no longer his.
The narrative is illustrated with footages of Portland and its countless trees, before migrating to Brooklyn, New York where Smith moved in 1997. These landscape shots help the viewer understanding better the geographical context in which Elliott Smith evolved, especially since he used to write a lot about what he saw and what was going on around him. We are also treated to an alternate version of King's Crossing, one of many songs about drugs that Smith seemed to have written before actually using.
Photographer Autumn De Wilde - who published a book about Elliott Smith - Club Largo owner Mark Flanagan, and fellow musician Jon Brion share many funny anecdotes about Smith, such as when he took over a jukebox with $40, or took part in a moustache competition with his friends (supporting evidence included)!!
Elliott Smith then talks about performing his well acclaimed Miss Misery at the Oscars in 1998, an awkward but worthy experience that made his friends and family very proud. We also understand how his genuineness pushes him to often abort a song halfway through, when he feels he has been playing it too much and that it is no longer relevant.
The beginning of the end is situated around 2000 according to Smith's relatives; but aside from stories of bad performances, the director chooses not to go into details. Rossi sums up Elliott Smith's death in a couple of sentences, mentioning two stab wounds to the chest and a normal amount of prescription drugs in his system. The debate around the tragic event is not opened, and Jennifer Chiba - whom Smith shared his life with at the time of his death - is not mentioned a single time throughout the documentary.
Nickolas Rossi managed to deliver the first film that depicts Elliott Smith as a multi-talented and joyful human being. The movie keeps you smiling and laughing most of the time, unlike the vast majority of documents/interviews that make you feel sorry for Smith, too often portrayed as a depressed junkie. This documentary reveals a whole new aspect of his personality that has been hidden for so long, just as the countless unrealised gems featured in the soundtrack.
It is also a very good tool for the novices who want to discover the artist, as it includes a fair amount of his greatest work such as No Confidence Man, Angeles, Coming Up Roses, Son of Sam and Happiness. The only negative aspect of this 104minutes documentary, is that it is actually too short and leaves you asking for more!