Film Review: Searching for Elliott Smith at the Oriental Theater

Film Review: Searching for Elliott Smith at the Oriental Theater

July 29, 2012 Off By Billy Thieme
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.


  • Billy Thieme

    Aging punk rocker with a deep of all things musical and artistic, enough to remain constantly young and perpetually mystified. Billy has journalistic dreams, but of a decidedly pastoral, Scottish nature.