"I'm not the sort of person to be really, really famous." So said singer-songwriter Elliott Smith in an interview, and it's one of the main themes of Nickolas Dylan Rossi's profile of the troubled artist, who died in 2003. Even his death at age 34 was flagged as "media-ready," a still-unresolved knifing that might — or might not — have been self-inflicted.
The documentary takes the viewer through Smith's musical life, beginning with a high school band in Texas, through his notable time in Portland's 1980s post-punk scene in bands like Heatmiser. In the early 1990s, Smith adopted his signature solo style — quiet, spare, introspective songs that held audiences rapt. Rossi taps many of Smith's friends and colleagues of this time, who paint a portrait of an iconoclastic, but talented, artist coming into his own, seemingly on the cusp of a modest, workable career.
Then in 1998, the aging punk, a shy and reserved oddball, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, "Miss Misery," from Good Will Hunting. And perhaps, the film posits, this was not an individual suited for widespread fame. It's here that the film's narrative takes a downbeat tone, with recountings of Smith's substance abuse, erratic behavior and general unhappiness. Clips of Smith's music are accompanied by gloomy wallpaper: shots of the less scenic and emptier parts of Portland, Los Angeles and Brooklyn — the three cities where Smith found creative inspiration.
The film remains hagiographic, with even the most candid interviewee relating some rosy wistfulness of the "good" Elliott, or what musical genius was snuffed out untimely. The film is a bit insular for general audiences, but certainly fans of Smith and those intrigued by troubled contemporary musicians will find the work of interest.