Talented Mr Smith

ONE online tribute posted after Elliott Smith's death in 2003 summed him up perfectly: "He was one of those guys that was just cool no matter how big or popular he became. He had absolutely no pretension or pose. His love for creating such honest music made him so true... He wrote some of the best music I've heard in my lifetime and played it with such ease and grace... He was one of the most humble and brilliant musical people I know..."

Smith was an unbelievable talent and it was unbearably sad that he took his own life at the age of 34. He left behind a phenomenal back catalogue: five solo albums and another two released posthumously.

Now Nickolas Rossi has made a much-anticipated documentary on Smith.

It screened in Belfast last November and gets a one-off Dublin screening tomorrow.

Heaven Adores You opens in 1998 with a filmed interview in which Smith says, "I'm the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous".

Smith moved from Dallas to Portland, Oregon, when he was a teenager and first became noticed in the indie-rock band Heatmiser. But he truly made his name for his stripped back solo material, which earned him comparisons with Paul Simon.

He flirted with the mainstream when his songs featured on the soundtrack to Hollywood film Good Will Hunting, starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Things got even crazier when his fantastic song Miss Misery, featured in the film, was nominated for an Oscar.

As acclaimed photographer Autumn de Wilde says in the documentary, "Elliott was like our little secret... then he did Good Will Hunting and the whole world seemed to find out who he was."

Smith himself is seen recalling the "weird" but "fun" night he performed his song at the Academy Awards: "It was all these famous singers and then it was like, 'Who's that guy in the white suit?... What's he doing there?' And I was wondering the same thing..."

The documentary only has a couple of clips of Smith being interviewed on film, so mostly features photos of him (including many of him when he was growing up), radio interviews, filmed interviews with friends, family and former bandmates.

Much of Heaven Adores You features nicely shot footage of Portland, Los Angeles and New York. Perhaps the lack of TV interviews with the man himself confirms both how under-appreciated he was in his time and how publicity-shy he was.

In his interviews Smith consistently comes across as humble, funny and self-deprecating.

He was a born songwriter and wrote because he had to and had no interest in fame and fortune, so you can understand how indie record label boss Larry Crane believed that the Oscar nomination was the worst thing that could have happened to Smith. The singer got signed by major label Dreamworks on the back of his Good Will Hunting exposure and popped up on the soundtrack of American Beauty with a superb cover of Beatles song Because. The two albums he did with Dreamworks, XO and Figure 8, were among his best but the film illustrates that he began to lose himself in drink and hard drugs at this point.

There are interviews with his sister Ashley and his manager and personal assistant, with the latter pair pointing out that Smith's drug use made things get 'dark' and fractured many relationships. When friends staged an intervention to try and pull Smith out of his rut, he didn't take it well.

We hear from his ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme. He wrote several songs, including the brilliant Say Yes, about her and it was the break-up of their relationship that made him leave Portland for Brooklyn.

Yet he took Bolme as his guest to the Oscars and she recalls how they didn't get much TV exposure because they happened to walk down the red carpet just after Madonna. Smith says the best part of the Oscars circus was that it made his mum really happy.

As you would expect, the documentary features a lot of Smith's music, with the likes of Angeles, Everything Means Nothing to Me and Waltz #1 sounding particularly brilliant.

One of the interesting insights for Smith's many Irish fans is that the demo title for Waltz #1 had been Bushmills - "maybe something to do with the night before [when he wrote it]".

There's also an interview with Mark Flanagan, the Irish owner of LA club Largo, where Smith used to perform.

We see a photo of the crowd at a Smith gig in Dublin, possibly his Red Box show in 2000, and we're told that he was hugely excited to play in Ireland and rumour had it that Elvis Costello - one of his musical influences - was going to attend that gig. Perhaps because of the lack of interview footage with Smith, half of the documentary focuses on his time in bands before his solo success.

But it's a film well worth seeing about a man who said that what he did was to simply paint "pictures made out of words".

Elliott Smith was a hugely talented artist and through this film and his stunning back catalogue, his legacy will live on.

Rating HHHKK

* Heaven Adores You screens at IFI Dublin tomorrow at 4pm (IFI. ie). For more information, see


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