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Searching for Elliott Smith

14 Jul

Living in Los Angeles in 2003 was a painful time- a seething frustration with war and America, a personal sense of anguish and hopelessness under the crusted, sticky orange skies and, to top it all off, Elliott Smith was dead. Elliott Smith, who murky death by knife through heart was so stupidly poetic and overblown that it almost laughingly compounded the loss of a musician too brilliant not to perform but too sensitive to make it last. It was a crushingly silencing moment of desperation. Out of all that emotion, film-maker Gil Reyes pieced together a documentary titled Searching for Elliott Smith, which will have it’s Midwest premeire at the Cedar Cultural Center this Friday. Along with the movie, an acclaimed list of local musicians will be taking the stage to perform covers of Smith tunes, making what is sure to be a poignant experience even more powerful.

The film includes video footage of Smith’s mumbling, disjointed and later performances, as well as interviews many of the people close to him. Specifically featured is Jennifer Chiba, Smith’s then-girlfriend who (like Courtney Love after death of Kurt Cobain) bore a lot of the brunt of suspicion and criticism- Smith’s death is still an open case according to the LAPD and has neither been ruled a homicide nor a suicide. But the words of those who were around him and cared for him help flesh out Smith as a human being.

Several of the musicians playing also shared some thoughts on Smith and the experience of playing his music. Singer-songwriter Adam Svec told CakeIn15, “You can tell he was a man of revision. For how well the puzzle pieces fit together of his carefully crafted lyrics and melodies, it is clear that Elliott Smith labored over his pieces. Each interval needed to fit like it was supposed to in his master plan for that particular story and arrangement. As delicate as some of his voicings are, he was a monster guitar player. Typical tuning, triads, and structure of guitar parts didn’t seem to interest him much… As any mediocre guitar player does when they realize they have to learn how to play songs written by an exceptionally good guitar player, I [feel] a little overwhelmed.”

Overwhelmed is probably a good word to use when taking on the emotional baggage of Smith’s songs. Holly Newsome of Zoo Animal, who will be playing “Twilight”, had this to say about Smith’s power; “I think there are people who are made of music and some people who use music to communicate. To me, Elliot Smith was made of it. His genius seemed effortless. He was very human and un-afraid of uncomfortable topics, to the point where he made us comfortable with the uncomfortable parts of being human. He unapologetically spilled his humanity by exposing reality through song. That kind of writing inherently brings us closer to each other, by making us more fragile and pries us into our real selves, which we may have trouble doing on our own. I love him for that.” Elliott Smith, documentary subject or not, is still the dead with us, still scratching away at souls.

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