In the Shadow of the Sun (Derek Jarman, 1981)

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(Screened at Cafe OTO with a live score performed by Psychic TV)

In the Shadow of the Sun exists essentially in the dead-centre of a triangle made of Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1974), Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1991), and From the Pole to the Equator (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1987). As one might thus expect, it is an oneiric, haunting and paradoxically apocalyptic world-creation, wholly intoxicating in the well-established avant-garde-cinematic mode of queer orientalism and yet, in eschewing a good three-quarters of the campiness we would associate with Anger or Jack Smith, the contrast between skeletal ritual masks and race/class-signifying top hats allows Shadow to approach a slight critique of the colonial “magickal tourism” so often in play. Note I do say “approach,” rather than “reach,” however there is a notable absence of naiveté within the gaze of these blown-up 8mm images.

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The use of repetition and superimposition, as with Jarman’s earlier shorts (from which some of Shadow‘s footage is evidently lifted) invokes a particularly cabbalistic reading of montage – a visual praxis of solve et coagula – that demands numerous rewatching and reinterpretation. I certainly plan to oblige.

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La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

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I mean, let’s be clear: it is not necessary to hate La La Land in order to love Moonlight. It makes total sense that it was nominated in many categories throughout awards season, including the Oscars. Neither of those statements, however, speak to La La Land being a good film. It’s a fine film, eminently watchable once you get past the first couple of truly grating numbers, Ryan Gosling’s piano is impressive enough that we may forgive his singing, and it may have grabbed me at several moments, but it never once held me.

People are starting to find the postmodern genre flick, constantly referencing cult classics, increasingly obnoxious. Even I had to put my foot firmly down whilst watching The Hateful Eight, and I’ve given Tarantino pass after pass over the years. It surprises me, therefore, that La La Land‘s “love letter to Hollywood” schtick has been so celebrated. Considering its release during the Brexit/Trump era, I can’t help but think of the 1974 MGM musical compilation film That’s Entertainment! and its piteous tagline “Boy, do we need it now.” Certainly, there’s an affective seduction at the heart of La La Land but I do feel the need to stress the manipulative quality implicit in that observation. Tarantino’s own aesthetic at least allows for hidden gems: you will genuinely enjoy his films more if you do seek out the often semi-obscure B-movies being referenced with varying degrees of subtlety throughout. La La Land, on the other hand, makes unmistakeable-by-design nods towards exceptionally well-known and well-loved classics and yet never exploits their recognisability to the extent of entering into any depth of analysis.

Indeed, most cynically, Damien Chazelle & Co. seem to rely on the general audience’s lack of knowledge about either films or music, which brings us on to the question of jazz. Does La La Land have a racial problem with regard to jazz music and white saviourism? Undoubtedly it does. And yet, for my white, jazz loving money’s worth (which, admittedly, may not be worth much at all), it’s not something we need take all that seriously, because La La Land‘s relationship with jazz is so utterly surface-level, it doesn’t risk teaching anyone anything about it at all, either racist and incorrect, or gospel truth. Jazz is little more than the mcguffin for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to mansplain to Mia (Emma Stone) throughout the narrative. It could have been replaced with oldskool techno, heavy metal, opera, and the effect would have been precisely the same. It’s not, after all, like much of the score even has that much to do with jazz – certainly the type Sebastian is interested in – it really just, much like in Whiplash, acts as the catalyst for the extreme gender problem both films seem to reveal about their writer/director.

Jazz music is a serious white concern for serious white men who, for the sake of its continued existence, must not be distracted – let alone criticised – by any woman. Both films seemingly follow the logic of Foucault’s description of neoliberalism to the letter, stressing the need for ruthless micromanagement and the absolute discardability of personal relationships for the acquirement of human capital. Perhaps most interesting is Chazelle’s desire to have his cake and eat it too by also acknowledging the necessity for amoral situational adaptability in the quest for human capital (whether sustaining abuse in Whiplash or – at least temporarily – “selling out” in La La Land) whilst still romanticising the nature of integrity, left entirely abstract by the end of the film because being “principled” is more important as a general personality quirk is worth so much more to Chazelle than ever detailing what these principles are. It’s entirely reasonable for many people to state that, no, Keith (John Legend) is by no means a sell out; acid jazz etc etc is a generic tradition in its own right and has been since the 1980s – more or less the only thing Sebastian told us / Mia about jazz is that it has improvisation, and he clearly is allowed to improvise onstage with that band, too. If Sebastian truly is as horrified as he seems, the first time he sees The Messengers employing synthesizers in a jazz setting, he’s going to freak out when he learns about Herbie Hancock’s later work. Clearly, these concepts of “integrity” etc are decided by one person and one alone: Damien Chazelle. If you don’t agree with his worldview, your enjoyment of La La Land is instantly going to be limited.

“Integrity” and, indeed, “passion” are the codewords for – from the romantic perspective – that which allows you to “achieve your dreams” and – from the capitalist perspective – that which allows you the most easy access to human capital. “Integrity” and “passion” are codewords for individualism and whiteness. Despite the intersubjective, often democratic, nature of jazz performance, about which Sebastian speaks at length – the type of thing that allowed Thelonious Monk multiple times in concert to stop playing piano and just dance to the sound of his sidemen – Chazelle’s interpretation of jazz always has but one most important player and that player is always the protagonist. La La Land routinely made me think of Whiplash‘s ending, in which the protagonist, who has never once met the band before, high-jacks the entire performance for the sake of an alienating if impressive solo, after the more-or-less antagonist of the piece had moments before decided to ruin the show for all of them, just to humiliate him. The solipsistic – not to mention white – gall of that scene drives the whole of La La Land, no matter how much more subtly, and that strikes me as the crux of its white, capitalist cynicism.

Apparently, Chazelle’s desire when making La La Land was to “have something which had the magic of musicals, but also had the texture and the grit of real life.” So, just like Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz, New York New York, Rent… As I said, no matter how well put together this film is – and it certainly is – La La Land is a duplicitous exercise. It demands you praise its referential nature, whilst ignoring its unoriginality. It demands you praise its affect, whilst ignoring the working class / POC labour and genius upon which it depends. It demands you praise its romanticism, whilst ignoring its capitalism.

Huh, maybe it is a genuine love-letter to Hollywood and the music industry, after all…

**1/2

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, 2013)

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Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a, confusingly enough, hypnotic yet frustrating documentation of Estonia, Finland and Norway that undoubtedly shares much of Stan Brakhage’s “back to the land” philosophy, albeit few if any of his aesthetics. Certainly, as a visual and aural reflection on a spiritual commune between man and nature, A Spell works best when it is at both its quietest and its loudest – both of these states most brilliantly carried on the shoulders of semi-protagonist, avant-garde / black metal / drone pioneer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe.

Unfortunately, what certainly feels like the lion’s share of A Spell is not devoted to Lowe, silently rowing staring with stoned, unblinking eyes at a burning wooden hut, or performing some of the most surreal harsh vocals in extreme music today, but instead to a group of fairly insufferable hippies who mumble and murmur aimless anecdotes and half-baked social theories which, speaking as a mid-20s Arts & Humanities graduate living in east London, I really don’t need to watch a Ben Rivers film to hear. I don’t want to be giving A Spell the relatively pedestrian rating of only 3.5 stars but, beyond having to dock the rating due to the tedium of the aforementioned section, it had to lose another half due to the actual – presumably unplanned – alienation effect this section has on the rest of the beautifully serene film. As I alluded to earlier, A Spell does operate on a paradox here – if the rest of the film didn’t operate so beautifully, it might have ironically ended up with a slightly higher rating. Life is strange.

There is, undoubtedly, a Bazinian beauty to A Spell which absolutely works to the benefit of its philosophy – it is the realism of the cinematic praxis here which endows the film so much with a spirituality of form. Such a relationship to the pro-filmic environment is what allows the opening shot and the final 45 minutes such consistency. Much of this rests on the camerawork, which achieves at its best moments a perfect harmony between phenomenology and restrained documentation. The opening shot is a methodical volley of pans, back and forth across a vast and seemingly completely secluded lake, all of which stop short of being 360⁰ as though to self consciously deny the camera the privilege of an omniscient position. Likewise, in the black metal performance in the last half hour, shot entirely in one take, the chiaroscuro on-location mise-en-scène of the stage, only emphasised when contrasted with the band’s corpse paint, gives the scene an ecstatically disorientated ambience, as the camera snakes around the performers, almost entirely in close-up to extreme-close-up, in such a way that we are left with no concrete understanding of the geography of the stage, or the positioning of the musicians. They seem to appear randomly in the line of the lens’ sight, again stressing the limitations of the artist’s hand in the face of an holistic omnipresence of of man-nature communal spirituality (an ever-increasing preoccupation of black metal lyrics, both in its Scandinavian birthplace and beyond, from France to the Pacific Northwest).

There is so very much to love about A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, I can only hope that, the next time I watch it, I’ll be in a slightly better mood and be able to afford it at the very least half an extra star.

 

***1/2

Ten Great Atmospheric Soundtracks

So, in addition to reviews and the odd academic whatever, I’ve decided to start doing the occasional article, dare I say it, “listicle,” to add a little variation in my blog posts. The first recommendation has come from my good friend Ilhana, who suggested “Top Ten Moody/Atmospheric Soundtracks,” so here we go… I decided to rename it to “Ten Great,” as I’m sure I’m missing off so many stunning soundtracks and scores right now. Numbers are indicative of nothing other than the order in which they sprang to mind:

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) – Mica Levi

I’ve always said that, were I ever to curate a music festival, I’d need to dedicate three separate slots to the Mica Levi: the first, naturally, for her incredible, danceable left-field post-no-wave band Micachu and the Shapes. The second as a DJ slot for her unbelievable noisy indie grime productions. The third, of course, would be for her to perform solo, with an orchestra, or somewhere in between, her masterpiece of an original score for Under the Skin. The subdued response to the maximalist notion of “space rock” afforded us by Spiritualized, or the overt coolness of Autolux, Mica Levi’s score encapsulates all the simultaneous oxymorons of space itself: it is at once engulfing, and sparse. It is measured, yet elusive. It is ominous, yet beautiful. It is threatening, yet vulnerable. Rarely has a soundtrack reflected the external progression and internal conflicts of a film’s protagonist so astutely and effectively. Winning 11 awards internationally, and being nominated for 7 more, that none of those were for an Academy Award is a disgusting reminder of just how artistically irrelevant the Hollywood meat parade truly is. Micachu, however, seems largely unfazed and just humbly shuffles along, seemingly embarrassed by her own genius. That we could all learn something from her.

 

2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

I mean, I was always going to pick something by Trent Reznor, wasn’t I? In many ways the most tragically overlooked of the Reznor & Ross / Fincher collaborations, both in terms of the soundtrack and, indeed, the film itself, this is certainly my favourite score of the three. Whilst the compositions for The Social Network and Gone Girl may be said to reflect the psychology of their protagonists (or, at least, their narrators), the score for Dragon Tattoo reflects the film’s greater preoccupation with questions of an aggressively Darwinian existence in the modern age: survival, adaptation, subterfuge, camouflage, and any level of violence deemed necessary. Thus, much like the visual motifs of the film, the score performs a balancing act between ice and fire, routinely exchanging the precision of The Social Network‘s modular synths for tremolo guitar reverb and detuned pianos. Adaptation and, indeed, evolution play a strong role in the development of sound – what is staccato routinely becomes sustained, and vice versa – aggressive percussion and the distant sound of bells compete for space and the listener may sometimes be surprised which side wins. The breaks for moments of true sentiment are few and far between but, as Dragon Tattoo at its most hopeful may suggest, are entirely worth the struggle.

 

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000) – Mihály Vig

Undoubtedly a film that should have been compulsory viewing for all British citizens before the farcical referendum, with the disastrous results only beginning to ripple through this stupid, petty little island, Werckmeister Harmonies, aligned for the most part with the engagingly loquacious, if a little unsettling, protagonist János (Lars Rudolf)  bears witness to a civilisation destroying itself in mass brutality, seemingly triggered by the arrival of a “circus” – in reality, the giant, decomposing body of a blue whale, and a deformed, malignant “Prince,” of whom we only see a silhouette, who may or may not be the Devil himself. The complete antithesis of High-RiseWerckmeister Harmonies looks on with a spiritual sadness that finds faith and hope where it can, which is absolutely nowhere. Such a profundity of paradox is reflected wholly in longtime Tarr collaborator Vig’s breathtaking score. I challenge anyone and everyone not to weep with a sense of melancholy beyond their understanding as they, with János, stare into the unblinking eye of the whale and the tinkling piano notes of “Valuska” begin to play. Reassuring in its repetition, yet so sombre in its melody, so frail in its timbre, with occasional rushes of emotion in its percussive rolls, this is the music of those who survey the sins of the world and with tears streaming down their face, in the manner of Beckett’s muddied narrator in Worstword Ho!, somehow move forwards.

 

4. Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, 1967) – Zdeněk Liška

Considered by a great many to be the jewel in the crown that was the Czechoslovak New Wave, Marketa Lazarová is a delirious immersion into the theological, tribal and sexual politics of 11th century Czechoslovakia, as bestial Pagans war against Teutonic Christians, each side’s vindictive brutality rivalling the other’s. Zdeněk Liška’s music is the only accompaniment imaginable to such a kaleidoscopic vision of dialectics, as it pits ecstatic choral voices against primitive percussion – the grand majority of the percussion either designed via the input of historians to help Liška achieve the most legitimate sound of the era, or alternatively completely new inventions to achieve sounds not heard neither the 11th century, nor yet in the 20th. It is appropriate for a film whose very overhead narrator may be God himself to have music that may imply we are all seeing the action from the heavens, with all the glory and violence we associate with religions both organised and chaotic.

 

5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) – Jonny Greenwood

Obviously a toss-up between this and Greenwood’s equally brilliant score for the equally brilliant Inherent Vice, I elected on the earlier composition largely for the reason that, unlike Inherent Vice which also has a soundtrack of 60s and 70s pop (my personal favourite being “Les Fleurs” by Anderson’s late, great mother-in-law Minnie Riperton), There Will Be Blood‘s lack of any music other than Greenwood’s score and is thus all the more affected by it. Sergei Eisenstein, master editor for the Soviet Union, viewed not only the filmic narrative but the filmic form as reliant on conflict – certainly, my captions in this article so far have borne that out in the description of juxtaposition after juxtaposition. There Will Be Blood is preoccupied with the ungodly, primal beast lurking within a well-tailored “of the people” oil driller who manipulates, dominates and kills in his lust and quest for a success he can only understand in terms of victory or defeat. Scoring the film as it follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) from a hopeful silver miner down a shaft to a violent, decrepit and alcoholic oil baron in an all-but empty mansion, Greenwood’s composition doesn’t so much explore juxtapositions between instruments as find alternative, often highly aggressive, uses in instruments – oftentimes allowing his ondes martenot to take control of some of the most legato passages, whilst giving his violinists guitar picks to turn their stringed instruments into tolls of unique and alarming percussion. Thus, the theme of ugly revelation carries on beautifully from the narrative to the music.

 

6. Queen of Earth (Alex Ross-Perry, 2015) – Keegan DeWitt

As a film, Queen of Earth still perplexes me. Although on a narratological level, I’m still unsure of its ultimate success, its formal brilliance was absolutely enough to keep me pretty enraptured until the end. The acting is spot on, the editing is as revealing and obscuring as it’s clearly intended to be, the cinematography is fantastic, with the lens focus being played like a violin as it masterfully captures the two protagonists’ destructive selfishness and crippling loneliness all at once. Not to mention, of course: the original score by Keegan DeWitt. Rarely straying too far from its classical influence, Queen of Earth‘s  main theme works contextually in much the same way as the music from Tristan und Isolde interacted with the simultaneously idyllic and apocalyptic visuals of Melancholia – clearly a not unreasonable filmic comparison to make. However, its chattering high notes and echoing, Chinese-water-torture-reminiscent percussion recall both the other-worldliness of Under the Skin and the paranoia of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, expertly reflecting the dissociative truculence of, in particular, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and, according to DeWitt himself, is a tonal reference to Polanski’s criminally underrated psychological horror The Tenant. Add to this busily arpeggiated and scale-running woodwinds à la Philip Glass, and you have a score that reflects perfectly internal projections onto an otherwise beautiful world.

 

7. Made in USA (Ken Friedman, 1987) – Sonic Youth

Okay, I’ll admit it: I haven’t seen the film. Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who has. I notice it is on YouTube, so perhaps I shall to cure me of the shame of discussing the soundtrack to a film I have not yet seen, but all reports say that the best thing about the film is the soundtrack, and the film severely underused it at that (Sonic Youth’s music for Made in USA wasn’t even released until 8 years after the film’s release). Recorded in 1986, the soundtrack to Made in USA was made during what I always refer to as Sonic Youth’s “dusty period” – immediately following Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, Sonic Youth’s two albums that turn their attention away from the New York City no wave scene to a more expansive sound, and to more Californian topics such as the Manson murders, not to mention titular nods to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Slowly but surely, their sound transitioned towards one with more pop sensibility – something that would be confirmed by the the more conventionally palatable Sister in 1987 and their double-album magnum opus Daydream Nation in 1988. Made in USA undoubtedly expands upon the Americana implications of Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, not simply employing increased use of detuned pianos and even harmonica. The guitars, whilst remaining entirely Sonic Youth, do employ that countryfied element in their bent notes that feel not unlike pre-eminent noise rock parodies of perhaps, Hans Zimmer’s work in Thelma & Louise and, in an attitude heavy criminal road movie, why would it not?

 

8. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) – Vangelis

In a manner not dissimilar to the panoply of editions in which Blade Runner as a film has itself been released, there is a long and messy history relating to the soundtrack’s release I shan’t go into here, but it is interesting how many hurdles at times stand between us and works of greatness. Vangelis’ unforgettable composition strikes me as owing a debt to Wendy Carlos’ masterpiece of a score to A Clockwork Orange (my heart breaks that I was unable to add a trans woman genius like Carlos to this list but, sadly my aim for as many original compositions as possible restricted me from adding the soundtrack so defined by her stunning “switched-on” reworks of the classics) but arguably diverts from her tone inasmuch as Vangelis doesn’t allow the dystopian noir to overshadow the impressive, if ecocidal, grandeur of the gargantuan urbanisation of Planet Earth. Electronics, of course, take the lead, though Vangelis does employ oneiric use of some organic instruments, not limited to saxophone, gamelan and tubular bells, in such such a way as to refer to the particular type of lounge jazz emitting from 80s radios (regularly and appropriately associated with the erotic thriller and other such bastard offspring of film noir) as a half-forgotten memory in this future Earth. The urbanity, the despair, and the sleaze are thus all readily accounted for in the soundscape, though all may still play second fiddle to the brimming crescendos that accompanied the first audience’s gasps of such oppressive beauty.

 

9. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) –  Carter Burwell

Fully aware of the cheekiness of this one, I simply couldn’t not add a soundtrack of (save for the end credits) almost complete silence to the list. I initially considered adding the silence of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, though I have unfortunately seen a naturally sub-par screening of that with musical accompaniment, so I feel a mainstream cinematic release such as this works for the best. No Country For Old Men is certainly nothing if not laconic with regard to dialogue and even the most violent and murderous of character interaction. Nearly every single character being a Vietnam vet, the act of not discussing the traumatic burdens one carries Certainly borrowing from the western and the film noir, No Country deals to a certain degree with archetypes on an individualist level, but not to such an extent that anyone’s personality can truly dominate a given situation – with the one possible exception of the nigh-Satanic antagonistic juggernaut Anton Chigurrh (Javier Bardem), whose alien and obscure moral code feels not at all un-reminiscent of “The Bad” Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) from The Good, the Bad and the UglyNo Country is a film that meditates on evil within a world of negative space. Thus, the absence of any sound, save for the extremely occasional distant Tibetan singing bowl, or a piano detuned to the frequency of a refrigerator’s hum, is precisely what is required: un-embellishing, un-relieving, and un-forgiving.

 

10. Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970) – Various

My favourite feature-length film of all time, Performance  – much like my favourite musician, Keiji Haino – fundamentally represents for rock ‘n’ roll both its apex, and its annihilation. Sublime as it is nasty, femme as it is macho,  Performance‘s soundtrack accesses rock ‘n’ roll’s roots, and its future, and then surpasses it. Thus, Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, Merry Clayton, Buffy Saint-Marie, Merry Clayton, Bernie Krause and, naturally, Mick Jagger himself (with his greatest song of all time) contribute music both diegetic and non-diegetic that nods to gospel and the blues, makes use of one of the first moog synthesizers to create foreboding, Schaefer-esque pulsations, not to mention play the inimitable Black nationalist spoken word artists The Last Poets – rapping astute and powerful politics ten years before the Sugarhill Gang would form. Naturally, the centrepiece of Performance is the proto-music video for “Memo From Turner” (yes, my namesake) by Jagger, which makes the most thinly of veiled Ronnie Kray references throughout, as it delights in sending the casually racist butch world of London thuggery and queer Surrealism in head-on collision with one another inside a washed-up genderqueer rockstar’s daydream:

 

 

 

Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay (Amélie Ravalec, 2015)

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I was really looking forward to this. The title suggested that I was going to be in for some psychogeographical complement between the sounds of the industrial scene and Herzogian documentary-style footage of estates and ghostly urban sprawl, like a contemporary reimagining of Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Halbe Mensch” and instead I watched a surface-level talking head fest with less information than BBC Four’s 2009 program Synth Britannia.

Covering almost exclusively the mot accessible and synthpoppy elements of Industrial, with massive gaping holes as far as artists like Nurse With Wound, Coil, Whitehouse and Merzbow are concerned, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decayteaches you nothing new, but at least seeing it at the cinema gives you the opportunity to hear some Throbbing Gristle and SPK played on louder speakers than you probably own at home. This fact becomes all too abundant, however, thanks to the shoddy mixing job and poor quality of the sound recording equipment, resulting in many of the interviews getting drowned out by music many of us have heard before.

However, given that the interviews are nothing but musicians making incredibly bold Great Man Theory statements, all claiming to be the first musicians of discord, first practitioners of sampling techniques, selectively forgetting futurism, free jazz and musique concrète as just three examples, we aren’t missing all that much.

At 52 minutes, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay is a short, pretentious and dramatically wanting affair, salvaged only somewhat by the quality of its primary source material, which will itself be entirely familiar to a solid 90% of its audience anyway.

**

Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Dylan Rossi, 2014)

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Heaven Adores You is without a doubt a charming, beautiful and emotive tribute to the music of Elliott Smith and the effect and affect it had on those who knew him and those who didn’t. However, as others have criticised as well, its narrative contains certain glaring omissions and perhaps too strong an investment in claiming him as Portland’s own (one cannot help but feel the film itself becomes a little resentful and loses a certain amount of interest when it reaches Smith’s exodus first to New York City and then Los Angeles). Clearly the filmmakers were not as privileged in terms of access to the cornucopia of primary source material as those behind Cobain: Montage of Heck (and the comparisons will be abundant) were.

Still, this does mean that Heaven Adores You provides the viewer with a much clearer insight into Smith’s Portland years, both solo and as a member of Heatmiser, than I personally had previously. The way the sound editing transitions between often amateur-shot live footage and album recordings and the introspective, psychogeographic relationship the film has with both the urban and rural landscapes that were the backdrops to Smith’s creativity makes Heaven Adores You an engaging and appropriately sentimental appreciation of one of the most unique and profound singer-songwriters of our time.

***1/2