The excitement surrounding this week’s premiere of Montage of Heck, the documentary on Kurt Cobain, along with the popularity in recent years of similar features on Jimi Hendrix and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, has proven that narratives focusing on musicians who died young and under tragic conditions never lose their attraction.
Filmmaker Nickolas Rossi took on the task of telling the story of Elliott Smith in Heaven Adores You, managing to coax the notoriously reticent subject’s family, friends and former bandmates to assist in chronicling the life of the singer-songwriter who passed away in 2003 at the age of 34.
Heaven Adores You, which screens at the Regent Theater tonight and other venues in town later this week, tends to stay away from the gossip surrounding Smith’s addictions and demise. Instead, it drifts languidly through the three main cities he lived in — Portland, New York and Los Angeles — as those who interacted most with Smith during each period reflect on the man and the music he left behind. L.A. Weekly spoke with Rossi about the challenges of making the film and telling Smith's story in an original way.
Elliott was very private and incredibly shy. How much of a challenge was it to get people to open up who were close to him?
It was definitely a challenge, because it’s sort of known that when Elliott passed away, not a lot of his friends wanted to talk to the media about him, because the media really wanted to focus on the last couple years of his life instead of the bigger picture. They were very protective — and rightfully so — of their friend. I’m not going to say it was easy to get people to talk to us, but it required a tremendous amount of faith on their part that we would make the film that we said that we would make, which was to honor him and focus on the music that he made, and not make a film about the last year of his life and all the sad stuff that has seemingly become the theme of the Elliott Smith story.
There’s still a sense of some of the interviewees being guarded, especially when talking about his drug addiction. There were statements like, “When Elliott was sick.” Why do you think it’s so hard to this day for people close to him to say he battled drug addiction?
I think that for the most part, it was just the way that Elliott’s friends want to frame that personal experience for them. Them dealing with Elliott when he was sick — or when he was on drugs — was incredibly painful and not at all something that you can take lightly and be glamorous about. I felt that they said what they needed to say in the way that they needed to say it.
Portland, New York and Los Angeles are three distinctly different locales that Elliott lived in, and it seems like he became a different person in each one of them. You can see how he changed in each city that he lived in; was it an adaptation?
It’s hard to say, because I’ve also lived in those three cities and at very different times in my life. I think that you feed off of the energy of each of those places in a very different way. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a sort of noticeable, “Elliott changed from the time he went from Portland to New York,” because that’s a huge lifestyle change. And then moving from New York to L.A., I made that move and it was very shocking. Some of it was probably different because of where his career was; he was definitely a lot more established by the time he moved to Los Angeles than he was in Portland.
There’s a part in the movie where director Ross Harris talks about how Elliott didn’t want to come down to Southern California to film the “Coming Up Roses” video in 1995 because he didn’t want to be in Los Angeles. Then a few years later, he makes the city his home.
He originally didn’t want to come down to L.A. because he didn’t want to make a “Hollywood video” at that time. When he finally decided to move to L.A., it seemed to be because his manager lived there, and he just got off the XO tour and he was focused on putting together Figure 8 and it probably seemed like a natural place for him to pursue a higher level of his career, and Los Angeles was a pretty good place to land.
Do you think it’s also a place that he was able to disappear and find some anonymity, knowing how shy he was, as opposed to Portland, where he became very recognizable?
Maybe. I think being recognized was not part of the plan that he anticipated, but I’m sure he enjoyed the attention to some degree. At that point, he was a famous, recognizable musician.
You shied away from getting into Elliott’s death, in particular the circumstances surrounding it.
It seemed almost too easy to make a movie about what people don’t know about the circumstances and I really wanted to make a film that focused on his music and the process of the artist and the incredible journey that he had had in making his music — it’s there for people to interact with. The point was to celebrate the life.
What is your take on why the case remains open and the theory it wasn’t suicide?
I know that the last thing we knew was that the coroner’s report came back “undetermined.” I don’t really pay enough attention to the theories about what could have happened. I’m bummed that he’s no longer around, and I don’t really know what the circumstances are, and maybe someday new light will be shed on what happened, but I don’t think this was the film that was going to explore that and come up with a different answer.
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For more info and a complete list of screenings of Heaven Adores You, visit heavenadoresyou.com.