Alan Laidlaw reviews Heaven Adores You, the first official Elliott Smith documentary and a thoughtful retrospective on the life of the late songwriter
It’s unfortunate that most people who are aware of Elliott Smith tend to associate him with one of two things: the performance at the Academy Awards or his battle with drugs and depression that led to his untimely and tragic death in 2003, aged 34. There’s always an element of apprehension when coming into a documentary about such a public figure, a fear that it will merely amplify what we already know about the person without developing the finer points of their life.
Thankfully director Nickolas Rossi and his Kickstarter-funded project avoids the obvious traps, offering up a thoughtful and personal account of the sometimes happy man behind the sad songs. It paints its subject in the most gentle of lights, always having the respect to probe but never intrude on some of the darker elements of his life, such as his relationship with his father growing up and the impact that had on him in later life.
Comprised mostly of interviews with family members, band mates and close acquaintances, Heaven Adores You doesn’t include much in the way of personal footage of Smith. What remains of his life, for the most part, are the memories, and the one thing that we can all treasure – his music.
The documentary understands the power of being able to relay the personal moments from those closest to him: the sincerity of emotion on show makes for a constantly affecting experience, as we’re taken on a journey of his life, spanning from his early years growing up through to his time playing in the band Heatmiser right up to the posthumous release of From a Basement on the Hill.
The strict chronology in which the interviews are arranged lends to a very succinct and thorough look at his life in the three places he spent it the most: Portland, New York and Los Angeles. It flows seamlessly through his ups and downs, often taking time to ponder on the phases that changed him the most.
What’s most impressive is that Rossi shuns sensationalism for an understated, down-to-earth treatment of a man who, as much as he tried, could never quite find complete happiness in his pursuits.
This is essential viewing for any devoted fan, and a great opportunity for anyone else to discover his music.
Heaven Adores You is released in selected UK cinemas from May 7 – find screenings near you
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