The emergence of Elliott Smith from the cacophony of mid-’90s Northwest punk was unlike any other music success story, except in the sense that, in the end, it was exactly like every music success story.
The same can be said of this documentary, which benefits from the filmmakers’ obvious affection for his subject and access to a lot of Smith’s actual friends and collaborators (many of whom make an admirable habit of not participating too promiscuously in the Elliott Smith industry). The most important asset, of course, is the impossible bounty of Smith’s songs on the soundtrack.
But all these good elements also conspire in a strange way to diminish the film—the same way an Elliott Smith song on pretty much any speaker seems to shame any song that precedes or follows it. The form of the music bio doc is so familiar by now that it can’t help but bend any artist’s story to its strict generic edges, no matter how reverent and loving the treatment strives to be.
Smith never fit comfortably in the frames that were available to him—aesthetically, culturally, or otherwise—so his presence in this one can’t help feeling like a reduction of an irreducible person, rather than an encapsulation of a great and tragic career. But for all that, seeing his close friends talk straight about the experience of losing him is both gratifying and disturbing.
Because of the integrity of the whole enterprise, it never approaches the mawkish showbiz bullshit stories like that tend to engender in lesser docs. But it also provides a context for the sense of bereavement that still attaches to Elliott Smith’s memory like a doubled vocal track.