Depression is a funny thing. Funny as in strange, unfathomable. There’s a desperate need for human connection and comfort, often combined with abusive behavior and a pushing away of those who are the closest. Medication, even when it’s by doctor’s orders and well-intentioned, seems almost random, as in “let’s see if this works.” How can one explain what it’s like to witness this happening to someone you care about and be helpless to do anything about it? Frustrating, harrowing, soul-destroying. I’m not talking about the gifted singer-songwriter Elliott Smith right now… I’m talking about my mom. A few days spent in a psychiatric ward, riding out manic-depressive pendulum swings brought on by incorrect medication levels, gave me kind of a unique perspective to discuss a beautiful spirit taken from us far too soon.
It was a lucky fluke that I found out about this film, when someone from my Indie Rock Meetup group gave everyone a last-minute “heads up” that there would be a screening at the Somerville Theatre. It was part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston, with filmmaker Gil Reyes on hand for a Q&A. As I waited in line with Boston’s indie music elite (where ARE these people during the day?), I spotted a guy from Pop Matters. One of the IFF staff had just walked by, saying “this line should be for Elliott Smith only,” and he replied with the quote of the evening, “now seating all hipsters.” Indeed.
The film opens with a shot of The Fog Cutter, a bar in Silverlake, near where Elliott lived for the last years of his life. Scenes of L.A.’s Eastside and of Portland, Oregon (where he first performed with Stranger Than Fiction and Heatmiser), are interspersed with short clips of his music, live performances, and casual, heartfelt and painfully honest conversations with friends and colleagues.
Elliott was a sensitive guy who clearly went through really dark times (some connected to a difficult childhood with his stepfather), but he also had a generous, lighthearted, and goofy side as well, which was best portrayed by fellow musician and former roommate in Portland, Sean Croghan. Sean’s intimate anecdotes are in stark contrast with the one-sided portrayal of Elliott by the mainstream press as a symbol of gloom and doom. The pretty, gentle melodies of his songs and his soft delivery help tell the other side of the story.
“At a party he was waiting
looking kind of spooky and withdrawn
like he could be under water
the mighty mother with her hundred arms
swept all aside
I hate to walk behind after people’s ambition
I saw you waiting
with your warning
you don’t belong here.”
“No Name #1” ~ Roman Candle, 1994
Those who knew him offer insights into various periods of his life – David Bailey, his high school teacher in Portland; Chris Cooper and Denny Swofford of Cavity Search Records (Roman Candle) and musician/producer David McConnell (From A Basement On The Hill); fellow musicians and friends Pete Krebs, Tony Lash (Heatmiser, Stranger Than Fiction), and Robin Peringer; his former girlfriend Jennifer Chiba; and others. They all portray, with tremendous love and respect, a gifted songwriter and genuinely kind and humble person who was never quite comfortable with his increasing popularity.
Nothing is sugar-coated in this film. Elliott’s various drug dependencies are discussed, as are the events leading up to and following his death. He’s shown dazed and incoherent at a Sunset Junction street fair (and elsewhere), flubbing lyrics and forgetting chords (with audience members having to shout them out to him). But this is, above all, a loving tribute with a hell of a lot of heart, as starkly honest as Elliott was in his songwriting.
“it’s 2:45 in the morning
and I’m putting myself on warning
for waking up in an unknown place
with a recollection that’s half erased
looking for somebody’s arms to
wave away past harms.”
“2:45 am” ~ Either/Or, 1997
It’s all too familiar, the life of an artist on the verge of greater success. A few drinks to loosen up before a show, wind down afterward. Something to quiet the churning mind to sleep while on tour with crazy hours and endless obligations. Copious amounts of caffeine to get going the next day. Eventually maybe something a bit stronger and doctor prescribed, surely no harm in that, and before you know it, everything spirals out of control. Not always of course, but pretty often it seems, especially with pressures of frequent touring and too much time away from home. In Elliott’s case, this was further compounded by bouts of depression, antidepressant medications, and his own self-prescriptions.
“I can’t beat myself
I can’t beat myself
and I don’t want to talk
I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet
whenever I want
so leave me alone
you ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks.”
“Needle in the Hay” ~ Elliott Smith, 1995
A poignant moment came during an interview, when Elliot was asked about his tattoo of Ferdinand (from a children’s story), the bull who didn’t want to take part in bullfights, but instead wanted to sit on the hillside and smell the flowers. It is a story of following not others’ expectations, but one’s own inner truth – something that he strongly identified with. It was insightful and telling: both Elliott’s eloquent explanation, and the interviewer’s total loss at any meaningful response.
The film is full of imperfections – wind and traffic noises from interviews conducted outdoors on the streets, rough edits and fan recordings of shows. There’s a lo-fi rawness which mirrors Elliott’s own sensibility. An engineer who worked with him explained how he would have this perfect, pristine take and would then want to mess it up. He wanted the imperfections left in, to make his work more genuine, more human. Everything about the film, as Reyes explained in the Q&A that followed, was about capturing who Elliott was, his essence.
Sprinkled throughout the documentary are childlike illustrations and animations that seemed strange at first, but were apropos and underscored Elliott’s innocence and childlike demeanor and vulnerability, which is evident in his work.
As things began to unravel in his life, there were interventions from friends, co-workers, and probably his family as well. We don’t know much about his immediate family, as they refused to take part in the film, going so far as to prohibit Elliott’s music from being used, which meant that Mr. Reyes could only use short commented clips under the ‘fair rights’ rule. But Elliott certainly wasn’t alone. Those around him tried to help, though sometimes, there just isn’t anything one can do. When he died, he had been clean from his heroin addiction, and had recently given up alcohol, prescription meds, and even cigarettes ‘cold turkey’ (any one of these would have been hell, never mind all together). In the absence of definitive answers, one looks to place blame. Over the years following his death, suspicion focused on Jennifer Chiba (who herself suffered from depression) who lived with Elliott in L.A. Kindred spirits might not always make for the best pairings, but my sense is that she was as supportive as she could be under the most trying of circumstances.
“Everybody cares, everybody understands
yes everybody cares about you
yeah and whether or not you want them to
it’s a chemical embrace that kicks you in the head
to a pure synthetic sympathy that infuriates you totally
and a quiet lie that makes you wanna scream and shout
so here I lay dreaming looking at the brilliant sun
raining its guiding light upon everyone.”
“Everybody cares, everybody understands” ~ XO, 1998
Elliott’s passing helped galvanize an already strong and supportive artistic community that has built into something akin to the Renaissance in the Silverlake/Echo Park area of Los Angeles. That is not to romanticize his death, but it’s surely part of his legacy. Small consolation to those who loved him, as one is left with the feeling that Elliott’s move from Portland to the poisonous fishbowl that is the L.A. entertainment business – while not the direct cause of his demise – clearly did nothing to help that downward spiral. In watching this lovely film, we see a humble, kind-hearted person; perhaps too sensitive and vulnerable for the lifestyle his growing popularity thrust him into. It’s a common story, though in Elliott’s case, he didn’t appear to want mainstream success, with its trappings and entrapment.
“I have become a silent movie
the hero killed the clown
can’t make a sound
can’t make a sound…
the motion moves me
the monologue means nothing to me
bored in the role, but he can’t stop
standing up to sit back down
or lose the one thing found
spinning the world like a toy top
til there’s a ghost in every town
can’t make a sound…
why should you want any other when you’re a world within a world?”
“Can’t make a sound” ~ Figure 8, 2000
This touching and very personal tribute ends with the wistful regret of his friend Sean Croghan, ‘maybe if we could have gotten him back to Portland…’. Disturbing but honest, as it’s human nature – the “what ifs” and “if onlys” we’re left with in the face of unexpected tragedy. An unfinished sentence; lingering questions. We’ll never know, so best to focus on the man himself and the brilliant music he left us, since that is all we have now to remember him by.
“The moonlight tonight seems to belong to me
Cause even those who can’t sleep
they need some company…
If I seem to be reckless with myself
It’s the fault of no one
All things have a place
Under the moon as well as the sun.”
“Little One” ~ From A Basement On The Hill, 2004
Notes from the Q&A:
~ There were intentionally no interviews with music historians or other “experts” or critics. Reyes made the decision to only include interviews with friends and co-workers, those who actually knew him, so it would be a more personal story.
~ “I wanted it to be honest – a tribute to Elliott, but honest.” – Reyes
~ At first there was some reluctance, but then people wanted to share their remembrances. The first to agree were his friends and fellow musicians in Portland, Oregon. Then his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, wanted to tell her side of the story as one of the last people to see him alive, and also to defend herself against harsh criticism – and some outright accusations – that followed his death. Other L.A. people followed. A lesson for journalists is to not give up. You may not get exactly what you want, but you may get something different that’s interesting.
~ “There’s a lot of interest in Elliott’s work right now, from people all over the world. He’s empathic, and relates it in his music.” – Reyes
~ Is there more Elliott Smith material that hasn’t been released? Yes, including some songs not included in the ‘Basement’ release which his family didn’t want out there; songs that dealt with suicide (i.e. “Suicide Machine”, and others that can be found online).
Past and Future Screenings
There have only been three screenings to date of the film, which was completed last September. There was the world premiere at CMJ on October 23, 2009; then the Mar del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina in November; and this one at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, Somerville Theatre, April 26, 2010. There are plans to release a DVD, after screening opportunities have passed. See the official site or the film’s Facebook page for more information.