I’ve listened to the music of Elliott Smith, the prolific Portland-based singer-songwriter who rose to prominence in the late 1990s, for several, several years. Recently, during a closing shift at my night job, I used the restaurant’s premium speaker system to blast his 1998 release, XO. As his gentle guitar strumming emanated from the speakers, I realized that I now heard his music, understood his music in a more profound way than ever before. The catalyst for this was my having viewed the new documentary on Smith by director Nickolas Dylan Rossi, Heaven Adores You, and my subsequent interviews with those involved in the project. Listening to the hushed voice of Smith suddenly had greater poignancy. In Heaven Adores You, Smith’s friend and former publicist, Dorien Gay, reveals that friends and colleagues of Smith’s came together to host an intervention after the musician sent Gay an email that said to not be mad at him if he ever did something to himself. After that intervention, Smith wrote XO as a response to those friends who tried to help him.
What started as a documentary about musicians who were inspired by Smith’s music grew into a film focused solely on Smith’s music. The final product, Heaven Adores You, produced by Rossi, Kevin Moyer, and Jeremiah Gurzi, layers early versions of Smith’s music with his past interviews, and contemporary interviews with his friends and colleagues. The sound of his voice and the beautiful score of the film take you on an emotional, visual journey that explores the landscapes of Portland, Los Angeles, and New York—the places Smith called home. The result is a gorgeous heartfelt homage to a gifted songwriter.
The film recounts the songwriter’s early days playing in bands Stranger Than Fiction and Heatmiser, and then shifts the focus to Smith as he defines his own sound with the release of five solo albums between 1994 and 2000. Smith was rising to local stardom when he was thrust into the national spotlight with his song “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for an Academy Award as part of the soundtrack for Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Zant. Already famous in Portland, this newfound national stardom, paired with the success of XO, proved to be a pivotal moment in his short life. In a clip from a radio interview that played in the film, Smith says in his quiet voice, “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous.”
You hear from more than just Smith in Heaven Adores You. For the film, director Rossi interviews Elliott’s sister, his ex-girlfriend and collaborator Joanna Bolme, and Portland music icons Tony Lash, Jeremy Wilson, and Paul Pulvirenti. The film marks the first Elliott Smith documentary produced by and with those who knew him best, and in so doing shares new discoveries: previously unheard songs, unseen personal pictures, and rare performance footage. The result is a gorgeous heartfelt homage to a gifted songwriter.
“The three of us who shot the production portion of the film came from all three different perspectives, and coincidentally the three different cities that Elliott called home during most of his career,” says Kevin Moyer, the producer, music supervisor, and composer of the original score. “I think we, ourselves, kind of made up the different audiences that we were hoping to speak to, and I think the perspectives that we each had definitely came into play within all of the conversations as we were putting the film together and building the story.”
Moyer was the only person on the team who knew Smith, though casually. “He had this thing about him, that sometimes if you were lucky enough to spend time with him, and if he chose to open up to you, it was something that became very intense very quickly and it made you feel super connected,” notes Moyer. “I think that different people saw different sides of Elliott, and you might not ever really see all of the layers, so for most of us it was impossible to really know him, unless you spent a large amount of time with him: in a band, in a relationship, or on a tour bus on the road.”
One of those people is Paul Pulvirenti, who played drums with Smith on his XO tour, as well as on the recording for “Baby Britain,” the second single off that album. In the ten years that I’ve known Pulvirenti, I have never heard him mention Smith’s name. I recently asked him what it was like to tour with Smith and what he misses most about the songwriter. “I really miss his kindness to people,” responded Pulvirenti. “I really couldn’t believe that he asked me to (tour with him). He was already one of my favorite songwriters, and I likened it to hitting the musical jackpot. … Whenever we were playing on stage, sometimes he would look over at me and shoot me a smile, I have that look ingrained in my memory, and occasionally I dream about it.” Smith is someone who isn’t talked about much in the circle of people who knew him, but is still loved very much—a phenomenon that makes Heaven Adores You‘s intimate access to those who did know him all the more exceptional.
“We sat down and talked to about 35 people during the course of shooting, and for each one of those interviews, we probably talked for a few hours,” says Rossi. “There was also a lot of B-roll from Portland, New York City, and Los Angeles that I had shot and collected over the years. There was a lot to chose from, but when it came down to it, it wasn’t like there was a lot on the cutting room floor. You kind of know what you need to help tell your story, and so I think the strongest parts of all those interviews made it in the film.
“I really wanted to tell a story about Elliott and his music and where it came from and how it managed to really make an impact on people. I was pleased that there ended up being a nice balance between giving a film to the fans to enjoy and appreciate … as well as being able to present this story in a way that might also interest folks who had never heard Elliott’s music before.”
And the 106-minute film, a beautiful collection of stories edited by Eli Olson, does just that. Heaven Adores You is a touching reflection on the musical talent and life of Elliott Smith. In introducing his music to those who are unfamiliar with his work, the film ensures that his gift will continue to touch people. “You can listen to his music and it can feel like he is reading your own personal diary back to you,” explains Moyer. “(It’s) like he knows you, like he understands completely, as if he is opening his rib cage up and showing you his heart and that it’s your little secret to share.”
Heaven Adores You is the opening night selection of Portland’s 32nd Annual Reel Music Festival. Nickolas Rossi directed the documentary and also served as producer alongside fellow producers Kevin Moyer, Nickolas Rossi, Jeremiah Gurzi, and Marc Smolowitz. Eli Olson edited the film. Two showings, held at the Whitsell Auditorium inside the Portland Art Museum have sold out, so an additional screening has been scheduled for Friday, Oct. 10 at 9:30 p.m.
— Stephanie Neil, a videographer by day, runs Stephanie Neil Productions.