Searching for Elliott Smith, the new documentary on the life of the depressed, enigmatic singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, dwells surprisingly little on Smith's music. We learn three things. 1) Smith was always a talented, ambitious songwriter and musician, playing many instruments and unafraid of elaborate chord changes, even at a young age; 2) Smith used to be in a yelly grunge band called "Heatmiser" before deciding he preferred the lower-key sounds he eventually became known for; 3) he had a gift for writing radio-friendly songs, but would constantly strive to muck up anything that sounded remotely commercial.
The film treats this as tragic, telling stories of how Smith had "Young Man's Disease" and couldn't stand success. There's another story of how he became uncomfortable after Courtney Love recognized him backstage at a show. I don't know, that would make me uncomfortable, too. There's no analysis of whether this compulsion to destroy his commercial-sounding tracks made his music better, more personal, more artistically brilliant. I'm not convinced either way, but I know what Lester Bangs would say.
The movie works, because Smith's story is so good, and because some of the interviewees are so compelling. Portland musician and roommate of Smith's Sean Croghan is particularly great, self-aware and ranging from funny to vulnerable in a short period of time. Larry Crane, who co-produced Smith's biggest hit "Miss Misery," is jovial and entertaining. Director Gil Reyes mines some good material out of these interviews, staging almost an argument between Croghan and David McConnell as to how Smith's drug problem should have been handled. At other times, the movie interjects odd animations that fall a flat, but it doesn't detract too much from the story.
I'm left with a thought on a quote Smith had about his album Figure 8: "There's something I liked about the image of a skater going in this endless twisted circle that doesn't have any real endpoint. So the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere; it's just to make this thing as beautiful as they can." In the movie, this is spun as Smith's depressed take on life and making music, but I think in hindsight it's an optimistic way to view his life and work. It's hard to say what the point of his life was, but he did make beautiful music along the way.
Searching for Elliott Smith Office Site