Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
It’s hard to write an uncolored critique of a film about an artist whose work meant everything to me at a very particular moment in time, whose songs made me pick up my first guitar and try to pick out a tune. By 10 minutes into Heaven Adores You, a beautiful meditation on the life and work of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, I was already tearing up—his childhood photos looked so happy, at odds with the tragic end I knew would come. But as his one-time publicist remarks in the film, Smith’s inner demons were a small fraction of who he was, and Heaven Adores You does worthy justice to the rest. Through the voices of Smith’s friends, bandmates, and fellow members of the early-’90s Portland music scene, director Nickolas Rossi delivers strands of stories that, taken together, offer deep insight into how the musician’s sound developed through every iteration of every band and how he dealt with the tidal wave of fame that descended after his Oscar nomination for the song “Miss Misery.” The doc’s big weakness isn’t its fault: Lacking any modern footage of Smith (or much footage at all), Rossi devotes a good chunk of the film’s b-roll to atmospheric, sometimes arbitrary shots of Portland. The silver lining to that flaw is that Heaven Adores You wholly envelops viewers in Smith’s songs and the world that inspired them, driving home the fact that he wasn’t just a rare talent—he was a trailblazer for solo artists, a quiet guy with a guitar when the cool stuff was loud and political. Smith was ever authentic, shying away from anything that felt forced or put-on. And still, as Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon opines in the film, “Everybody knew that he was magic.”