Heaven Adores You, a Kickstarted documentary about the life and music of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival last week. It combines interviews with friends and collaborators, photos and video from throughout Smith's life, and ample footage of Portland, New York City, and Los Angeles (the three cities where Smith created music)—set, of course, to a soundtrack containing at least one song from every Elliott Smith album, plus unreleased recordings.
Director Nickolas Rossi embarked on his "love letter" to Smith in a quest to preserve the memory of the musician's life, which is often overshadowed by his sensationalized 2003 death. Smith, who suffered from depression and addiction, died at age 34 of two stab wounds to the chest. "The eight-year anniversary of his death came, and I totally spaced it out," says Rossi, who has been a fan since the mid-'90s. "I didn't even realize it had happened. And I thought, 'We can't start forgetting about Elliott Smith! There has to be a way to make sure that he's accessible to the generations that are going to come after this.'"
After launching their fundraising campaign, the filmmakers were undecided as to the film's direction. ("Is it going to be a biography, or is going to be a big, 96-minute music video?") That was when they received an email from Kevin Moyer, a longtime friend of Smith's, asking only, "How can I help?" Before long, they'd enlisted Moyer as one of the film's producers. He arranged interviews with 30 people close to the artist, including Smith's sister, friends, former bandmates, and collaborators. Rossi says "we really wanted to get a feel of what it was like to know him, and be friends with him, and play music with him, and watch him evolve as an artist."
The interviews are what drive the story. "When I would listen to Elliott's music, he was accessible, but he was sort of on that pedestal…because he makes such amazing art," explains Rossi. "And I guess what I realized was he was just a normal guy. There were a lot of things about him that were unique and amazing and he had incredible talent, but what I learned was he was just somebody's brother, somebody's friend, somebody's boyfriend."
As the team began putting the film together, they realized "it was very heavy on the superfan stuff," such as details about "the way that Elliott recorded certain things, and what microphone he used." Although Rossi found these things fascinating, he realized the film needed to be accessible to anyone. So while Heaven Adores You includes older, unreleased songs for diehard fans, "there is a story there a well. A really beautiful, kind of simple story there about a guy who just wanted to make music, and it touched millions of people across the world."
Rossi became entranced by Smith some 20 years ago after hearing "Satellite" on a mixtape while driving cross-country, and says he easily "could have made a 14-hour movie with all of the songs that I thought were amazing...You really can't go wrong with an Elliott Smith record. You'll find something, or one or two, or maybe four songs on any album that will resonate with you." Smith rose to mainstream prominence in 1998 when his song "Miss Misery," which was featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, was nominated for an Academy Award.
Heaven Adores You also includes footage of interviews Smith did throughout his life. "The less I think about it, the happier I am," he says at one point. "I don't really care where I fit into anything, or if there's anything to fit into. It's just, I like music, you know? That's the thing. It's really uncomplicated."