Film / Theatre Reviews - Reviews

Heaven Adores You

American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith (1969 - 2003), Oxford Street, London, June 1998. (Photo by Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images)

I was slumping about in my mid-teenage years, feeling a bit lost and misunderstood, when I first was introduced to Elliott Smith. One listen of XO and I fell in love hard. Elliott Smith’s magic lies in creating the delicately beautiful and achingly bittersweet. He is, at once, the perfect and worst thing to listen to if you’re heartbroken, melancholy or just feeling a bit overcast. And, let’s be honest, any fan worth their salt has knowingly (almost masochistically) reached for one of his albums when at a low, in the full comprehension of what will follow. He is the salt to pull out the poison, simultaneously causing pain and speeding up the healing process.

When I heard about Heaven Adores You, I twitched in excited anticipation. Similarly to Jeff Buckley, the details of Smith’s life (and death) have always been a little sketchy. I knew the rough bits and pieces; he was a Portland darling, struggled with drugs and depression and killed himself (ferociously) in 2003. But, fresh off the Montage of Heck bandwagon, I was looking forward, albeit nervously so, to learn more about this troubled artist who I’ve adored for so long.

I found out in the credits that Heaven Adores You was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. Trust me when I say, it is so entirely fitting that this film was funded by fans. This is not to say that the movie is bad – not at all – but it is such a loving portrait that it could be accused of indulgent whitewashing. Especially in the light of the murkier bits and pieces of common knowledge, I was a little disappointed to have certain elements at best alluded to, and others totally skated over.

Chronicling his childhood, we see a young Elliott (“Or as he was known in those days, Steven” says a charmingly nerdy friend from childhood) grow up, in the token picture montage of smiling Christmases, childhood horseplay and first guitars. There’s a fleeting reference to a difficult relationship with his stepfather, which results in a young Smith moving to Portland (Alone? So young? Wait, WHAT?), but honestly, blink and you’d miss it. Maybe I alone occupy a fanspace where I genuinely want to learn more, rather than remain in the comforting, but nonetheless, err, vague midsts of adoration, but I doubt it. It was during one of the film’s many extended sweeps of Portland, that I jolted with the reality that I might not get the insights I was hoping for.

As we see his music career taking off, it all seems somewhat effortless, perfect and easy. “We were all one big happy family” one band member reminisces, smiling. I love Elliott Smith, I really do. I don’t think I was one of the ‘sad kids’ that he sang for, and I loved that in this film, we see that he wasn’t just miserable. He had a happy life, he goofed around, he grew a silly moustache. He had friends, he had lovers, he had people who genuinely loved him. This is what this movie offers – for a fan, it’s a balm against the painful nervousness that Smith just had a shit old time. He didn’t – life looked like it was good for him at times.

But the truth is, there’s a lot that is ignored. I was a teenager in Northern Ireland, for God’s sake, and I knew that he had a drug problem. I knew he was depressed. I would have liked to have had a little more insight into how this came about, how this took hold of the creative talent that I’ve so often felt an empathetic connection with. Interviews with publicists, managers and friends explain how they distanced themselves from him, because he became ‘mean’. Then, we fade to a black screen and a single sentence explains how he killed himself.

Maybe this film was made too soon. It’s still painful for many of the people involved, that much is clear. There is one scene, where he sings ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’ and there’s a half breath beat, where you panic for a second that Elliott could cry. It’s especially difficult viewing, watching this in retrospect. But as a music fan, I do want to know more about the hazy circumstances of Elliott’s darker side and death. I’m sorry for it, and this film makes me feel ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth. There isn’t a single mention of Jennifer Chiba – I get it, that could add another hour to the movie, but it is strange that there’s just nothing.

Indeed, one interviewee sadly wishes that people can “one day, move beyond the tabloid speculation, and focus on the music.” This seems to be the qualifying sentiment of the entire film. Unfortunately for me, I feel like I have never dabbled in anything remotely tabloidly with Elliott Smith, it’s always been about the music. And, of course I’m sorry to say (again, so apologetic, I feel like these opinions cheapen me, but it’s how I feel, dammit), but this is more than tabloid fodder, this is the incredibly unusual, violent death of an insanely talented music star, in circumstances which are so out of the ordinary for a suicide that the case still remains open.

If you love Elliott Smith, you have to watch this film. It’s a simple as that. But if you have a thirst for more information, be warned – this is not Smith’s Montage of Heck. This is a tender homage to a man who is missed, who should never have died the way he did, by those who loved him. It is seen only too clearly how raw this is for many involved and, as said in the film, we see that “we don’t hurt the ones we love, we hurt those who love us”. It seems that Elliott’s death is still hurting too many people for the real story to be told. Cat Anderson