Film Review: Searching for Elliott Smith at the Oriental Theater

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Searching for Elliott Smith

Film Review: Searching for Elliott Smith at the Oriental Theater

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Searching for Elliott Smith

Searching for Elliott Smith

I learned tonight that I knew a lot less about Elliott Smith than I thought – thanks to the chance to see “Searching for Elliott Smith,” the documentary about this tortured musical genius – still looking for a real distribution deal –  at the Oriental Theater.

There’s a brilliant scene in the film that tells the story of how Smith ended up part of the sad countenance of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain – iconically troubled geniuses, all of them suicides – during an interview on MTV with Carson Daly (see it below). Daly asks the then-oscar-nominated (for “Miss Misery,” the closing song from “Good Will Hunting”) Smith about a tattoo on Smith’s right arm of “Ferdinand the Bull.” As Smith – meek to the point of appearing almost terrified – explains who the bull is, and how he “… doesn’t want to go the bullfights,” Daly replies with a tyically vapid “That’s awesome!” before immediately jumping into a magazine to find an article about Smith. Meanwhile, Smith visibly cringes, almost curls up into himself like a poked sea anemone and stares off for a second. In the film, the reaction is slowed, so that we can see the rejection on Smith’s face quickly turn into a total lack of surprise.

This image can define Elliott Smith’s reaction to his life, to fame, to “making it,” and, eventually, to his own demise at his own hand, having stabbed himself in the heart twice while his fiance Jennifer Chiba was locked in the LA apartment bathroom, trying to get a moment of respite from Smith’s constant pressure. Chiba is still under some suspicion for actually having wielded the knife, rather than Smith, though the film goes a long way in showing that murder most likely wasn’t the case (the case is still open, and Smith’s death has has not been officially deemed a suicide, though – the “…mode of death is undetermined at this time,” according to the coroner’s report).

But Smith was notorious for his disquiet, depression, drinking and drug use, and a particularly unsettling affinity for suicide stories – including often hilarious descriptions of how he planned to off himself eventually (by tying himself to a car’s bumper to be dragged to death, for instance). It’s this side  Smith that the film actually does a fantastic job of uncovering – his quirky, quietly desperate sense of humor. It seems Smith spent the last half of his life simultaneously struggling through pain, addictions, disappointment and paranoia as well as giggling, smirking and quipping about it all.

This is where the film’s strength is most evident. Director/editor Gil Reyes doesn’t attempt to answer the suicide question, really. But he does do a great job in portraying the struggle Smith seemed to face every day – and in a largely uplifting way. The film deserves wide distribution, and more than just the hipsters of the world need to see it – maybe that way Smith’s non-musical contribution will be just slightly more understood, and maybe we’ll stop seeing the same sort of heartbreaking tragedy.

Kudos to the Oriental Theater for hosting the screening, as well as a short set by Mary Lou Lord and a slew of other local Denver bands that covered Smith’s songs after the film, including Blake Brown (of Bare Bones) Im With Her, The Raven & The Writing Desk, Chella Negro, eldren, Kyle James Hauser, Poet’s Row, Straight Nerdy Like a Cool Kid and Nicholas Schmidt. Each performed a tune or two of Smith’s, and none quite so poignantly as Hauser’s  banjo-accompanied “Somebody That I Used To Know” and Brown’s beautifully rendered version of “2:45.”

The Oriental truly seems to be back on track after a few rough years, and is regularly signing quality acts again (Look for Agent Orange – the Orange county surf-punk legends – to be there August 22, as well as some significant surprises coming down the calendar, to see what I mean). Here’s to hoping the trend continues. The north side of town is growing, and needs a venue of that caliber to go along with it.



August 3, 2013at 8:43 pm

I know! It’s nowhere to be found. I’ve searched corner to corner. And are they still screening it anywhere? I dont think so… But if so, they should in the Bay Area, CA!


February 27, 2013at 10:17 am

i’m going mad. where can i find the doc???? i’ve been searching all over the internet and still got nothing.


September 17, 2012at 4:04 pm

Thanks for reading – and commenting! – Dustin. I’d say the film was done well from a look-and-feel standpoint. All I can say – honestly – is that I be Elliott would’ve liked it… I’d actually be surprised if it doesn’t get up to Vancouver… considering the proximity to Portland and the NW. Keep your eyes open!

– BT


September 14, 2012at 12:08 am

Great review… Just like all the rest, it just makes me want to see this so much more. Doubt it’s coming to Vancouver so looks like I’m waiting for that glorious day when it’s made public like most everyone else.

Billy, how professionally would you say the movie was done? I mean in terms of the budget. Did it sort of seem very much like a B-Film, or did it have some real high-quality film aspects to it? I mean, I know the content might be quality, but I’m talking more in terms of how professional it seemed, and camera quality and what-not. I’m just curious. Not saying I need a hollywood blockbuster budget style movie directed by Spielberg and Cameron to enjoy it haha, just curious. I mean compared to “Stranger than Fiction” which had a very amateurish feel to it. I’m sure it’s a step above that… But, even then, Stranger Than Fiction always interests me, every 1000 times I watch it.

I guess anything about Elliott Smith is just good watching. With the limited footage of him available, and limited footage of people discussing or talking about Elliott, this film seems like a goldmine for Elliott fans. I’m almost nervous for it to come out, if and when it does, because then once I watch that, it’s like… Well, that’s it. Haha, not much chance of a documentary coming out in 2025 about Elliott.

Alright I’m rambling now, I’m just all excited :p cant wait to see this one day.


August 9, 2012at 1:53 pm

I wholeheartedly agree – the world is at a loss with his demise. I also feel terrible for Jennifer – and meant to uphold the accuracy (but for an oversight that you thankfully caught in my word use). I highly recommend the film – it’s a good portrait of a troubled genius, and really does bring to mind the likes of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain – also both great losses. Elliott would’ve been 43 earlier this week, and I can’t help but wonder what else might’ve been had he just made it into a healthier space. Thanks for your comments.


August 9, 2012at 1:42 pm

I haven’t seen the film as yet but looking forward to it, I feel sorry for Jennifer Chiba and the position she’s in but at the same time I think it has to be acknowledged as it is officially that there is a (small in my opinion) possibility that it was a homicide. If it was suicide, the way he did it, and the way he left open the possibility that she could be seen as having done it was very out of character, he was very considerate probably to a fault, but people do act out of character especially conceivably in an act of impulsive suicide. But now 10 years later it’s probably never going to be definitively proved either way. More important than the controversy over his death, is that Elliott Smith was a great musician whose music still means a lot to many people and he was according to many accounts a good guy, the world is a lesser place without him.


August 9, 2012at 11:01 am

Thanks for your clarification. I realize I mis-spoke – and have made the correction above. Did you see the film? What did you think? Thanks for reading!


August 9, 2012at 2:08 am

For the record your comment ‘Smith’s death has been officially deemed a suicide’ is incorrect, it is not what the official documents state

from the coroner’s report ‘the mode of death was believed to be a possible suicide versus homicide’

from the autopsy ‘While his history of depression is compatible with suicide, and the location and direction of the stab wounds are consistent with self affliction, several aspects of the circumstances (as are known at this time) are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide.’

nowhere does it state that it has been deemed a suicide

The case is open, it has not been officially deemed either a suicide or a homicide.


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