IFF Boston: Searching for Elliott Smith

9 May 2010, 11:11 am

Gil Reyes’ biography of doomed indie rocker Smith is very interesting in how it embraces constraints: there’s not much film footage of Smith, and much of what there is isn’t technically good — so Reyes embraces the slacker aesthetic, using techniques like deliberately awkward cuts and mildly obnoxious microphone pops to make his footage match the spirit of the scant Smith material available*. Smith’s family/estate wouldn’t cooperate (because Reyes’ film includes Smith’s girlfriend at the time of his death, Jennifer Chiba, alleged by some to be his murderer) so Reyes’ inclusion of Smith’s music is an intricate dance through fair use doctrine: songs are excerpted, never performed in full, and always accompanied by critical commentary from folks like audio engineer-extraordinaire Larry Crane.

Reyes brings a journalistic eye to his first feature, and he proves himself an adept interviewer. He gets some remarkable moments on camera with Chiba, Crane, and some of Smith’s fellow musicians in the Portland scene like Pete Krebs (Hazel, Pete Krebs & the Gossamer Wings) and, especially, Sean Croghan. (After seeing the film, I went on a mild Croghan binge, snapping up his solo album as well as releases from his former bands Jr. High and Crackerbash.)

Reyes wisely assumes his viewers are acquainted with the rough outline of Smith’s life and death (I assume my readers are too) and doesn’t structure his film to depend on a grim third-act twist. And neither Reyes nor his interviewers try either to turn Smith into a saint or demonize him; they treat him as a human being: terrifically talented, but as flawed as any of us.

Smith’s death six-and-a-half years ago hit me like the proverbial load of bricks. I’ve scarcely been able to listen to his music since. I didn’t want to miss a chance to see this film, but I was a little afraid I’d find it tough to handle. If you’re of a similar frame of mind, you might want to know that it left me feeling a little more healed, and not a lot more saddened.

*for my taste this stayed just on the right side of cheerfully lo-fi, as opposed to amateurish and/or annoying.

One comment on “IFF Boston: Searching for Elliott Smith”

  1. Grahame

    Doug
    Thanks for this excellent review - I was hoping this film would be worthwhile, and from the sound of it, it is.
    I had the same reaction to Elliott’s death as you - his music was in constant play until then, now it’s almost too painful to listen to.
    All the best
    Grahame

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