I wanted to watch and review Heaven Adores You, the new documentary about Elliot Smith, because I am a huge Elliot Smith fan. Though I cannot claim to have discovered Smith’s music off of a mixtape out of the Portland music scene, my connection to his music is still a deeply personal one. I believe that such a personal connection is a common thread among Elliot Smith fans, regardless how or when they discovered his music.
When I heard the news that Elliot Smith had died, I was riding shotgun in my manager’s car. We were on our way to lunch, listening to the radio as we drove, and the afternoon DJ on KROQ broke the news of Smith’s death over the airwaves. I was shocked and saddened because I knew that someone who did something so special was gone. My manager asked me over lunch how I could be so affected by the death of someone I didn’t know. I told her that if she had been a fan of his music, she would have understood.
After the news of his death broke, that is all the media focused on and theorized about, the hows and whys of Smith’s passing. But a person isn’t defined by their death, a person is defined by their life and Elliot Smith is no different. Smith’s friends and family set out to make a movie that focused on his life and the musical legacy he created, and they have succeeded.
Heaven Adores You is as personal as Smith’s music. The film is directed, produced, and edited by Smith’s music-video director and long-time friend Nickolas Rossi. As with many biographical documentaries, Rossi has brought together friends and family of Smith to tell stories about his life. But what sets this apart from many other biopics is that Rossi has created a film that has a deep intimacy to it. Instead of feeling like a viewer watching people tell stories about Smith, Rossi has created a film where as an audience member you feel like you’ve been invited in by these people who are going to tell you stories about their friend, so that as a person, you can understand him better. Smith’s friends are not in the film to talk about the Smith as a celebrity; they are in the film to teach you about Elliot Smith the person.
Besides the stories about and the footage of Smith, Rossi also incorporates beautiful shots of Oregon wilderness, and cityscapes of Los Angeles and New York as gorgeous backdrops to the Heatmiser and Smith songs that play throughout the film. By doing this, Rossi creates space for the audience to be relaxed by the visuals and really listen to Smith’s music.
Because this documentary was made by and with Smith’s friends and family, it does not focus on his death or the circumstances around it. Instead, Heaven Adores You focuses on Smith’s life and talent. The film focuses on the legacy his music leaves and the memories those who knew and loved him hold dear. Heaven Adores You does not paint Elliot Smith as a saint, instead it fills in the holes left by celebrity and the media in order to reveal him as a human being.
The Blu-ray of Heaven Adores You comes with only a few bonus features, but I appreciate that this release is not meant to be a spectacle. The first is footage of Aaron Espinoza of Earlimart performing their song, “Heaven Adores You,” which influenced the title of this film.
The other bonus feature is extended interviews with Smith’s friends and family. I really recommend watching these because they expand on some of the stories told in the film. One of my personal favorites is the story Mark Flanagan, the owner of Largo in Los Angeles, tells about Smith’s opportunity to play the American Beauty VIP party and the mess that opportunity turned into.
Whether you are a fan of Elliot Smith’s music or still just discovering his musical legacy, Heaven Adores You is a beautiful tribute to his life.