Portland in Oregon is a city that always makes me think of my favourite American singer songwriter, Elliott Smith, who spent his formative years there after moving from Texas as a teenager.
It’s strange how the atmosphere of the city soaks into Smith’s music. The new documentary film, ‘Heaven Adores You’, captures that connection beautifully.
‘Heaven Adores You’ is an intimate, meditative inquiry into the life and music of Elliott Smith which takes us on a journey through the musician’s life which was cut tragically short by his untimely death in 2003.
The film follows Smith’s musical evolution as he moves from Portland and then to New York and finally to Los Angeles.
Portland’s music scene
As a huge fan of Elliott Smith, I was filled with a mix of excitement and trepidation when the opening credits for ‘Heaven Adores You’ appeared on the screen. The film is currently doing the rounds of independent cinemas in North America and Europe.
Most Elliott Smith fans had been disappointed by an earlier documentary, Searching for Elliott Smith, a low-budget biopic which was big on the seedier side of Smith’s life.
But this new film, funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is a fitting tribute to the man who could make you weep with just a whisper of his voice and his bitter-sweet lyrics.
‘Heaven Adores You’ focuses on the music rather than the tragic downturns in Elliott’s story – his alcohol and drug abuse, his descent into ill-health, and the tragedy of his apparent suicide (or murder, if you believe the lurid speculation).
This film takes a different, more personal track starting with Elliott Smith’s teenage years in Portland. Smith’s friend and band mate Tony Lash discusses meeting Elliott at Lincoln High School where the two of them began collaborating on music. Even as a teenager, you can hear the origins of what went on to become the trademarks of Elliott’s musical style.
As a film about a city and its music, ‘Heaven Adores You’ captures the beating heart of the Portland scene in the 1990s and Elliott Smith’s role within that brilliantly.
If Elliott is the star of the film, Portland is his supporting cast. Back in the 1990s Portland was starting to come out from under the shadow of neighbouring Seattle which had brought the world the “grunge” phenomenon with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
When grunge started to fade away, a new punky pop was emerging in Portland with bands like Heatmiser, Hazel, Pond and Crackerbash leading the way. Elliott was one of the leading lights in Heatmiser, a band which achieved a degree of success before imploding and going in separate directions.
‘Heaven Adores You’ reminded me of this cool Heatmiser video featuring one of their mates dancing on the streets of Portland to the band turned up to full volume on a ghetto blaster.
The film is strong on its forensic examination of the fledgling Portland music scene, its hipster bars, clubs and bands that populated it.
Soundtrack to Portland
Elliott Smith played with Heatmiser in Portland for several years but it wasn’t long before he struck out with his own personal musical vision, which was very different to the loud, shouty rock of his band.
He started experimenting with a brand of solo, acoustic music which can best be described as ‘lo-fi’, completely at odds with the trends of the time.
Elliott would record tracks under the stairs of his house, in basements and low-rent studios, producing music with a deceptive simplicity, sometimes using a 4 track recorder. These early songs would become the basis for his breakthrough solo album, “Roman Candle”.
The songs reflected life on the other side of the tracks in Portland – its scruffy fringes, unpretentious streets, railway lines, riverfront and backstreet bars. He played gigs in Portland’s hipster clubs and bars. often sitting alone on a stool surrounded by an enraptured crowd.
At the time in Portland acoustic sets were considered “nerdy” and “uncool” but that was all to change with Elliott’s music. When Elliott finally released his music commercially, an amazing 60% of his early American record sales came from his fans in Portland.
Portland is a pretty city with green parks and a stylish commercial heart. But it’s also largely a grey city with a lack of sunshine and few grand buildings compared with New York and San Francisco.
In winter it is renowned for its long, rainy nights and Elliott Smith’s music provides the perfect accompaniment to the city’s visual melancholia.
Elliott Smith’s music reflects the city’s low-key feel with its quietness, still tones and angry, emotional simmering that threatens to burst out.
He taps into the city’s endless landscape of parks, parking lots, motorway overpasses and inner city districts as well as reflecting events like the annual Rose Parade, featured in the song of the same name.
‘Heaven Adores You’ opens with a series of beautifully shot aerial views of Portland and its streets with Elliott’s music providing the soundtrack to the city.
Film director Nickolas Rossi says that he wanted to shoot Portland with no one in it, no people. An empty city. “We wanted it to feel like a ghost town. We did these aerial shots to make it seem like Elliott could have been there, but you don’t see him there.”
We also hear about Elliott’s recording work at Jackpot! Studios in Portland where he produced arguably his greatest album ‘Either/Or’ featuring classic songs like ‘Between the Bars’, ‘Angeles’, ‘Say Yes’ and ‘Ballad of Big Nothing’.
It was this music that caught the attention of director Gus Van Sant who was making the film ‘Good Will Hunting’ for which he picked three of Elliott’s songs from the album plus ‘Miss Misery’.
‘Miss Misery’ went on to be nominated for an Oscar resulting in global recognition for Elliott Smith and a brush with fame that didn’t sit comfortably with the singer. Despite the surreal feel of the Oscars, Elliott’s performance was what Larry Crane in the film describes as a “triumph for music”.
Elliott eventually made the big decision to leave Portland, the city that had been his muse after the break-up of a relationship and the disintegration of his band, Heatmiser.
He headed to New York City, continued writing in bars and eventually produced the gorgeous ‘XO’, with songs like ‘Waltz#2’, ‘Baby Britain’ and ‘Independence Day’.
Elliott Smith was a bar-fly in his newly adopted city. One Brooklyn bar owner featured in the film recalls watching him sitting quietly in the corner of his joint nightly, scribbling in a notebook. At first he thought Elliott was a writer but then discovered that he was composing song lyrics.
Smith lived in a blue-collar district around New York’s Fifth Avenue from which he drew inspiration for his songs.
The neighbouring Atlantic Center Mall boasted a giant ‘A’ sign, with its gleaming in red, white and blue lighting whilst the F train’s yellow line ran nearby. Both of these urban landscapes popped up in the lyrics of Elliott’s ‘Bled White’:
So I wait for the F-Train
(White city on the yellow line)
And connect through a friend of mine
(White city to a friend of mine)
To a yesterday dream
(Yesterday a dream was just a waste of time)
Cause I’d have to be high to track the sunset down
And paint this paling town
Sadly, Elliott Smith grew increasingly unhappy and depressed in New York, not helped by having left Portland and his friends behind. Once again, he moved on, this time to the west coast of the USA.
Elliott’s musical career is really a tale of three cities. The final city was to be Los Angeles where he moved after his stay in New York turned sour. At first his music reflected some of the sunshine of the city with its upbeat harmonies but with a tart finish. The song ‘LA’ is a case in point with its mix of sunshine and suicidal tendencies.
Los Angeles was also where Smith descended into deep drug abuse and horrendous depression – a spiral into ill-health and confusion. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been any different if Elliott had returned ‘home’ to Portland.
There were long periods when Smith seemed to disappear into oblivion, fuelled by his growing drug addiction and personal problems.
After attempting to clean-up his life, Elliott Smith started to record again, working on a new album with a darker tone. ‘Heaven Adores You’ doesn’t get into the detail of the making of this final album, preferring to reflect on Elliott’s legacy.
Elliott Smith died tragically on October 21, 2003 in the LA house he shared with his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. He had been stabbed in the heart twice, a suspected suicide, but darker theories have since emerged.
Today the swirly red and white Elliott Smith Memorial Wall in the Silver Lake neighborhood of the city is a place of pilgrimage for Elliott’s fans.
After his death , the posthumous release, “From a Basement on the Hill,” was completed by his friends Joanna Bolme and Rob Schnapf .
Heaven Adores You
‘Heaven Adores You’ is a film about three music cities but most of all it’s a love letter to Portland and Elliott’s music. It’s beautifully shot with some interesting archive footage of Elliott Smith on film and in radio interviews.
But is it any good? Perhaps the best thing about the film is that director Nickolas Rossi puts Elliott Smith’s music centre stage, allowing Elliott to narrate the story of his life himself, through the filter of recorded conversations and interviews with his friends and fellow musicians.
I loved the film’s authenticity. Director Nickolas Rossi weaves together interviews with Smith’s fellow musicians and friends to create an intimate and personal history of the singer songwriter.
There is much discussion about the nature of fame and what it does to people. In a revealing comment at the start of the film, Elliott Smith says that he’s “the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous”, a sadly prophetic statement.
For Elliott Smith, it was always about the music, never the fame. The film stays true to that vision of a great songwriter who never felt comfortable with fame and its trappings.
For those who don’t really know much about Elliott Smith, there are many unanswered questions in the film. In an attempt to shake off a tabloid view of the musician, the film never tackles the underlying issues of why Elliott was depressed and what drove him to the edge.
His girlfriend – Jennifer Chiba – the only person to know what happened on the day of Smith’s death is written out of the story totally. This is perhaps understandable given the anger of many of Smith’s fans towards her, but this remains the troubling ‘elephant in the room’.
Since his death in 2003, many have attempted to tell the story of his “troubled” genius, often through the lens of struggle, heartache and addiction. But perhaps a little of that background might have helped the casual film viewer through his complex story.
At the end of the day, Elliott Smith’s music is what shines through in this film. His truthfulness and authenticity are a beacon.
There is much to admire in ‘Heaven Adores You’ including several previously unheard songs but the trip to the dark side of Smith’s mind is not a journey we are taken on.
Perhaps we’ll never get to the bottom of the true story of Elliott Smith. As he sings so poignantly in the song “Waltz#2” – “I’m never going to know you now / but I’m going to love you anyhow”.
The film ‘Heaven Adores You’ is currently showing in independent cinemas across North America and the UK.
Photos are courtesy of Heaven Adores You and Nickolas Rossi