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'Searching for Elliott Smith': Lo-Fi Docu Takes Pilgrimage Through Musician's Life

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By Zach Jensen/Special to LAist

This past weekend the documentary Searching for Elliott Smith continued its travels through the festival circuit with a stop at the Los Angeles New Wave International Film Festival. In the film, first-time director Gil Reyes takes the pilgrimage through Smith’s life. To his fans, Smith was more than just a simple musician; he is a legend and perhaps one of the most important musicians of this era. Rarely is someone a casual fan of Elliott Smith; most fans feel they know him just as intimately as they know any other friend. But the reality is, they just knew Smith the performer.

Rather than choosing to speak to celebrities and listen to their anecdotes and experiences, Reyes spoke with Smith's friends (his family denied requests to be interviewed). This choice makes for a more genuine film that allows the viewer to get to know Smith beyond the stage.

From his early years in high school, to Heatmiser, and finally his solo career, as well as during his sudden rise to fame and death, the film does a fairly good job of showing the many sides of the man--a man who was extremely talented, humorous at times, compassionate, shy, depressed, but at the end of the day a man like any other with flaws. Smith was a troubled soul whose somber voice sang songs of sorrow with such an empathetic air that made one believe he understood everyone's problems. His poetic lyrics, so intimate and raw, let his fans walk down "Alameda" with him.

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Sean Croghan, Smith's long time roommate and friend in Portland, paints a picture of a talented and troubled man who also had a humorous side. Ross Harris, director of the "Miss Misery" video, tells of a socially awkward man who could be witty and generous, often covering the expenses of things out of his own pocket. The film makes no attempt at sugarcoating the events of his life. Instead the film offers a positive portrayal mixed in with negative aspects of Smith's life as well, including drug runs in downtown LA to score crack from assault rifle wielding dealers, to having multiple doctors prescribe medication for a slew of emotional issues.

Searching for Elliott Smith is a tribute to a man who through all his shortcomings had a beautiful soul, and positively impacted friend and fan alike. This positive impact is why some people had issues with buying the fact that he committed suicide. Jennifer Chiba has long been suspected by some as his murderer and she makes a rare appearance defending her innocence and giving her side of the story. In fact, because of Chiba’s participation, Smith’s family would not allow his music to be used in the movie. This hurdle was overcome by using short sound and video clips that fall under the fair use doctrine.

The film is a very low-fi affair, often with background noise cutting in on the interviews, as well as childlike animations portraying events in Smith’s life. However this low-fi quality meshes well with the poor quality footage that is out there of Elliott’s performances and appearances and and of Smith's overall musical "feel." This work gives people who are already fans a chance to know more, but people who do not know about him already may need an prior introduction before viewing this film.