The local side of this year’s Reel Music Festival

A new Elliot Smith doc opens this year's Reel Music Film Festival, but there's plenty more to check out at the fest that runs from Oct. 10 to 22.

By LARS STEIER

In the new documentary “Heaven Adores You,” director Nickolas Rossi sought to cover an aspect of Elliott Smith’s life he feels has been unfairly neglected – the music.

Late in the film, musician Sean Croghan says, “Hopefully someday we can… all get past the tabloid news aspects of his life and just start to focus on what he created.”

The sentiment is echoed by Rossi’s direction. Much of the film’s running time is devoted to Smith’s musical development in Portland, where he spent much of his life, in lieu of discussing his drug use or apparent suicide in 2003 – events which have come to dominate his narrative.

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“Heaven” plays three times during the Northwest Film Center’s 32nd Reel Music Festival, including two festival-opening shows on October 10. Reel Music runs 11 days, primarily featuring music documentaries from the last year, along with a few classic narrative works, like Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine.”

“Overwhelmingly what interests me about Elliott Smith is his music and his evolution as an artist,” Rossi said in a phone interview. “I find that story about the kind of normal guy who makes amazing music that has an impact on people all over the globe really compelling…It was so much more enjoyable to work on that than to kind of try to dissect or focus on a tragedy.”

Kevin Moyer, a producer on “Heaven Adores You,” expanded on Rossi’s comments:  “We wanted to show who he was while he was alive and while he was making this great, creative art, and kind of bring the focus back to why anybody cared in the first place.”

“Personally that was a big reason for me to do this – to get away from the tabloid, sensational kind of stuff,” says Moyer, who recalls spending time with Smith on the patio outside downtown Portland’s Lincoln High School in the late ‘80s.

It will also be a homecoming for director Nickolas Rossi, who is making his feature-length debut.

“The inspiration definitely came from living in Portland in the mid-’90s when Elliott was making that kind of music,” Rossi says. “In a lot of ways it’s like I’m going to a high school reunion and showing everybody what you’ve been doing with your life.”

heaven-adores-you_low-res_041714Rossi later relocated to Los Angeles, where Smith spent his final years. Following Smith’s death, Rossi shot footage of a mural outside Solutions Audio-Video Repair, which has become a fan memorial for the late musician.

“I remember being not too far from the Solutions wall and deciding that I wanted to make this tribute video to this guy who had made an impact on me in Portland,” said Rossi. “And that video got a lot of attention from fans and I realized that Elliott’s music had reached beyond Portland, and had reached beyond North America and was this sort of bigger influence on a global level.”

The project was backed via Kickstarter in 2011. Rossi and producer JT Gurzi later added Moyer to the production team, who helped secure interviews with friends of Smith.

“Portland is pretty closed down to talking about Elliott Smith,” Moyer says, “and a lot of projects have tried and failed because we as a community don’t want to talk to the media about him, it’s such a sensitive issue. We were able to do that. It was a lot of really hard conversations.”

The film features interviews with ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme and high school bandmate Tony Lash, with whom Smith would later form Heatmiser.

“When you think about Elliott Smith, you think about the solo stuff that he was making in his mid to late 20’s,” Rossi says. “You don’t realize that this guy was actually making music as a teenager, and that it’s all really good.”

Moyer spent time with Larry Crane, owner of Jackpot Records where Smith recorded, digging through archives. Several songs from Smith’s early days are featured in the film.

“I had a good base of knowledge from working with Larry so extensively,” Moyer said. “One of the things that Elliott did was he would constantly change and evolve his songs. He would be working on them for like a ten-year period. Something that he had done with his high school band would slowly evolve into another song, and then suddenly it would appear on a studio release.”

The film debuted in May, Rossi and Moyer both expressed anxiety over its first showing in Portland.

“It’s the hometown screening in a lot of ways,” Rossi said. “Hopefully we do right by the contributors and the friends.”

“Heaven Adores You” is one of several films at Reel Music with ties to Oregon.

unnamed-15“Breadcrumb Trail,” a documentary from Portland-based filmmaker Lance Bangs, covers the formation of the band Slint, through the production of their 1991 album, Spiderland. Bangs, who has directed music videos for artists such as Sonic Youth and Kanye West, in addition to work on MTV’s Jackass, fills “Breadcrumb Trail,” with home movies and grainy rehearsal footage. It plays October 14.

Another Portland director, Beth Harrington, brings “The Winding Stream” on October 11. “Stream” traces the near-hundred year history of the country musicians in the Carter Family, including a stint at a border radio station in Mexico, and daughter June Carter’s marriage to Johnny Cash, who was interviewed for the film.

A standout among the Festival’s 25 films is “Tosca’s Kiss,” a newly restored 1984 documentary from Swiss director Daniel Schmidt that profiles the residents of the Casa Verdi, a retirement home in Milan for opera singers and other musicians.  The former stars recall globetrotting adventures and re-enact their biggest roles in the home’s cafeteria. “Tosca’s Kiss,” plays October 15th and 18th.

Reel Music’s showings will take place at the Whitsell Auditorium in the Portland Art Museum.

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