Spending time with a contemporary “rock doc” is typically an exasperating undertaking with little reward. Too often, these films trade in tired platitudes that ironically flatten the individual genius of the film’s subject. This is especially true when the musician at its center has passed on.
Late, complex artists with troubled lives are filtered through a series of familiar talking heads who all seem to be reading from the same exhausted script called Things You Absolutely Must Say About Late, Complex Artists with Troubled Lives. “They were ahead of their time,” one of these talking heads will almost always submit. “They were misunderstood.” This will most certainly be followed by a decidedly voyeuristic two hours of cliché and ham-fisted emotional manipulation. Watch enough of these things, or just a couple, and you’ll begin to see the pattern.
Thankfully, Director Nickolas Rossi’s heartfelt documentary about the life and music of Elliott Smith breathes some life into this stale tradition. While not without its share of genre lynchpins, Heaven Adores You avoids the pitfalls one might expect from a film about a beloved musician whose short life is widely regarded as one of the most tragic stories of modern music. (Smith, if this is somehow your first exposure to him, died in 2003 from what was initially reported as self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest.)
Rossi’s film rejects the narrative of tragedy so often imposed on Smith, a move that might frustrate viewers coming to the film for answers about his untimely ending. As such, the documentary is less concerned with the profoundly sad—and increasingly contested—circumstances of Smith’s death, and more concerned with the circumstances of his life, his art, and his love for the people around him.
Heaven Adores You takes a geographical approach to telling the story of Elliot Smith. Divided between the three cities that had the most profound impact on his work—Portland, New York and Los Angeles—the film explores Smith’s output as a reflection of his life and relationships in those environs. This approach might begin to feel a bit procedural for very casual fans, or those new to the Smith catalogue entirely. This is especially true during the film’s exploration of the early Portland years, as the interviews with bandmates and industry types focus heavily on the the texture the local scene, the minutiae and evolution of Smith’s approach to performing, and the personal politics surrounding his early indie rock band Heatmiser.
In this way, Heaven Adores You presupposes that the viewer is already invested in the Elliott Smith story. The film succeeds wildly on these terms—with the best of its warm and intimate interviews focusing on people like Smith’s sister Ashley Welch, photographer Autumn de Wilde and musician Jon Brion—offering a compelling look at the life of a key cultural figure that is at once elevating and profoundly human.
Some might interpret Rossi’s lack of investigation into the more troubling components of Smith’s life as lack of critical curiosity. It seems more likely that Heaven Adores You keeps a respectful distance from the details of Smith’s strained relationship to his father, the motor mechanism driving his struggle with drug addiction, and the murky details of his gruesome death as an acceptance of the fact that some things are simply unknowable. Where, after all, does that desire to know land us? How does it help us understand art that has held such a firm purchase on our cultural consciousness?
The film acknowledges that these troubled pieces are part of Smith’s story, but it doesn’t exploit them in order to paint the familiar silhouette of the tortured artist so often forged by these sorts of biographical projects. Instead, it gives audiences a moving portrait of a truly singular talent who loved and was loved by so many. Heaven Adores You doesn’t speculate. It celebrates. And in this way, to borrow from the man himself, the film feels remarkably like “a fond farewell to a friend.”