The off-balance feel is present from the outset. The first music that appears in Heaven Adores You is not Elliott Smith's. Instead it's this middle-of-the-road incidental music on electric guitar that isn't even reminiscent of Smith's work. Director Nickolas Rossi opens by covering some of Smith's performance of "Miss Misery" at the Oscars in 1998 (we don't get to hear any of the song at this point) and the makeshift memorial in LA following his apparent suicide in 2003 (again, no Smith music for now). It's not until maybe 10 minutes into Heaven Adores You that we finally hear the melancholic intro to "Angeles." From then on the film doesn't let up on Smith songs. For a movie that's supposed to be a celebration of Smith's songs, it's an odd decision to not have his music present from the outset.
And yet while the music is great once Smith kicks in, Rossi doesn't seem to know how to present it. So much of Heaven Adores You features shots of Portland streets over Smith's music, and more shots of Portland streets, and more shots of Portland, and more shots of Portland. Much of it is this repetitive collection of lateral tracking shots and helicopter shots. At its worst, the first third of the movie feels like a Portland tourism video. Late in the movie as the film tragically chronicles the final months of Smith's life, we watch a duet of "Everything Means Nothing to Me" that Smith did with Jon Brion, the footage shot by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rather than hold until the end of this duet, Rossi cuts back to a helicopter shot of Portland.
Part of this issue may be Rossi's background as a cinematographer. When writing about David Lean's Great Expectations, Roger Ebert noted that Lean was an editor for seven years before he directed his first film. Ebert said that Lean's career may be the best argument that editors may make better directors than cinematographers, adding, "The cinematographer is seduced by the look of a film, while the editor is faced with the task of making sense out of it as a story."
To that, some structural faults are apparent as well. After the awkward introduction, Heaven Adores You moves chronologically through Smith's discography, from self-released cassettes through his days with the band Heatmiser and then through his solo career. This structure is fine, yet the movie spends too long on shots of various environs and playing full songs rather than really delving into Smith's life and songwriting. When the film arrives at 2004's From a Basement on a Hill, a posthumous Smith album completed by producer Rob Schnapf and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme, it skips over the entire process of producing, finishing, and releasing the album and instead hurtles toward a pat conclusion.
Maybe the most frustrating thing about Heaven Adores You is that in the handful of sections that work, Rossi makes Smith's music feel more present. Every now and then Rossi captures the loneliness and frailty found in so much of Smith's work, these dark sensations that we all experience and that are broken occasionally when we're reminded that there are people out there who love us. Maybe it's too difficult to delve too much, which is why Heaven Adores You stays mostly on the surface of Smith, unwilling to explore the deep hurts of his life or the lack of closure surrounding his death. It's more comfortable on city streets, easier at a distance removed.
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