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CIFF 2014: Heaven Adores You takes an intimate look at the life of revered songwriter Elliott Smith

Tuesday 02nd, September 2014 / 14:46
By Matt Hanson

CALGARY — The title of Nickolas Rossi’s debut film speaks volumes of Elliott Smith in continuity. Adored in life, as in memory, Elliott Smith lives on – and Heaven Adores You does his life pure and dignified justice.

From an impeccable and unadulterated heart, drowned in the bathtub gin of fame and riches, he begins the film with a 1998 interview.

“I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” Smith speaks with his understated voice, that characteristic jet-black hair falling over his brow.

Filmmaker Rossi began his journey through the music of Smith in Portland, Oregon. From that grey, northwestern coastal town, Smith brought himself up by his own bootstraps, having fled from his father’s home in Dallas, Texas as a teenager.

Smith went on to reign in the sweat-stained, bloody world of punk rock, playing with his hardcore band Heat Miser. When he started playing solo shows, people simply shut up and listened.

“His music is the soundtrack to a time in my life,” says Rossi, who was among the many early fans of Smith during his Portland days, when rapt crowds watched him fingerpick his guitar and sing with his special, delicate intensity.

“The conversation about doing something stemmed from a tribute video to Elliott Smith,” says Rossi, who prior to the film had worked as a cinematographer with award-winning documentarians around the globe. “In the process it was important to raise money. Kickstarter was successful enough to start principal photography. Little by little people reached out with their support.”

Rossi is a genuine and confident filmmaker, not particularly proud of direction in and of itself. By working with talented directors, Rossi picked up his strikingly brilliant talent, which makes all the sense in the world with the spotlight on an artist that he has respected deeply and personally for more than 20 years.

The film is a collective creative effort on the part of everyone involved, where a clear portrayal of the subject is the focus.

“It was coming from a place of really wanting to have a conversation about somebody that I admired. It wasn’t so much about directing,” Rossi humbly recounts.

Rossi interviewed 35 people to tell a story about an individual “just like us” – one who simply had a wildly extraordinary musical gift and lived long enough to share it with enough people to make a difference.

“I was a fan, I really respected Elliott as an artist, I just wanted to have a conversation with the people who knew him best,” he says.

In late 2003 at 34 years of age, while living in Los Angeles, Smith died of two stab wounds to the chest. Whether or not they were self-inflicted is still undetermined as there were no hesitation wounds.

Like another incredible artist who soared during the ‘90s, Jeff Buckley, who also died mysteriously at an early age, his lyrics offer premonitions.

On his track “Fond Farewell” on his final album From a Basement on the Hill, Smith sings, “A little less than a happy high / A little less than a suicide / The only things that you really try / This is not my life / It’s just a fond farewell to a friend / It’s not what I’m like / It’s just a fond farewell to a friend / Couldn’t get things right.”

At the time, he had quit alcohol and a number of other debilitating drug habits, as only prescribed meds were found in his body at the time of death.

Smith picked up where grunge rock left off, when the culmination of the genre became really about just doing something different.

Through his solo work, Smith embodied a vulnerability that is rare in the singer-songwriter music of today. Everyone who was touched by his music agrees that his untimely passing was a cruel loss to music everywhere. The substance of his lyrics, and the gravity of his expression were simply invaluable, a rare provocation of direct, shared human experience.

Fame then slapped a big price tag on it all, as when he sang onstage at the Oscars, remembering the experience during an interview in the film as “totally bizarre”, not for “someone like me.” As the sole singer-songwriter in a salt sea of pop stars, he said he “wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Meanwhile, Heaven Adores You looks forward to a long festival run, beginning with their premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival. In a total of eight public screenings, each one has been sold out.

Now in Australia, Rossi is preparing for the next screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, where the film won an official selection. The much-anticipated Portland opening will take place on October 10th.

In May, the film premiered in Canada at The Royal Cinema in Toronto. The full schedule for the 2014 Calgary International Film Festival will be released on September 2nd, after which Calgary fans of Elliott Smith will be sure to relish Heaven Adores You.

“He’s an interesting person worth spending 100 minutes getting to know,” says Rossi, who is also excited about younger generations discovering and appreciating the music.

“What’s most important is his music. We lost an incredibly gifted spokesperson, not even for our generation. He wrote songs that are so applicable to so many universal situations.

“He was an incredible storyteller and had an amazing gift for writing about a situation that you could relate to. You don’t really think about all the amazing things someone has done until they’re gone.”

Photo: Courtesy of Heaven Adores You film

Photo: Courtesy of Heaven Adores You film

Heaven Adores You plays at the Globe Cinema Sept. 19, 9:15 p.m. and at Eau Claire Sept. 21, 12:30 p.m. 

BeatRoute September 2014 AB edition cover

BeatRoute September 2014 AB edition cover

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