Pictures of Me: Elliott Smith on the Silver Screen

Felice Ecker Private Archive

By Kelly Dearmore

The melding of two powerful art forms - songwriting and filmmaking - makes for an often-thrilling confection that can lift either element into a new realm of existence. Sure, movie score titans like John Williams, Danny Elfman and Enricco Morricone can weave a film together with their compositions unlike any other, but how about those artists whose songs give individual scenes their indelible identities?


If you’re of a certain age, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel and The Bee Gees are first-ballot movie music hall-of-famers. Kenny Loggins and Randy Newman will inevitably come to mind for another generation of film buffs, while many fans of 21st century sports movies will name Texas post-rockers Explosions in the Sky as their go-to silver-screen soundtrackers.


Elliott Smith wasn’t exactly a rookie by 1997, but it’s safe to view the soundtrack to the Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting as his breakthrough. The singer’s talent and vision would’ve eventually found a mainstream audience without the Matt Damon vehicle, but likely a far smaller one if he didn't.


Still, plenty of selections from Smith’s catalog have popped up in movies other than Good Will Hunting. Hollywood has soundtracked joy, heartbreak, tragedy, laughter and basically every other spot on the emotional spectrum with his songs. The following four make a strong case for Elliott Smith as one of modern cinema’s top musical contributors.

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The Royal Tenenbaums, “Needle in the Hay”

For as quirky and breezy as Wes Anderson’s magnificent 2001 film is, the scene where Luke Wilson’s Richie attempts suicide after shaving his shaggy beard and head is a heart-stopping, gasp-inducing stunner. The marriage of “Needle in the Hay” to the quick-cut editing builds an ominous tension that breathlessly leads to a near-tragic climax. It’s been reported that Smith was unhappy with the opening salvo from his 1995 self-titled LP being used in that scene, but the sequence has become an iconic one. As is the case with pretty much any Elliott Smith film appearance, the mood-setting meter establishes a wistfully tasteful tone.

 

 

Love Liza, “Going Nowhere”
The combination of the dearly-departed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a storyline centered around a suicide and a then-unreleased Elliott Smith song makes for a potent piece of audio-visual storytelling. This Todd Louiso drama from 2002 features a pair of amazing performances by Hoffman and Kathy Bates, plus an unforgettable scene where New Moon's “Going Nowhere” tracks the thoughts and actions of a person trying to figure out answers for questions that are likely unanswerable.

 

Thumbsucker, “Let’s Get Lost”
For those only nominally familiar with the Elliott Smith discography, the coming-of-age flick Thumbsucker is as much the answer to a trivia question as it is another selection on their Netflix queue. Smith was reportedly working on the score and soundtrack for Mike Mills’s 2005 film when he died, leaving a void that would be filled by Tim DeLaughter of the Polyphonic Spree. However, Smith did leave a trio of tunes for the film - a pair of covers and the original “Let’s Get Lost.” That song, though serving as a sort of ambient background noise, can be heard during one of the film’s pivotal scenes, and especially for those of us who already knew the answer to the aforementioned trivia question, it’s a powerful moment that belies its gentle volume.

Stuck in Love, “Between the Bars”
Remember that scene in Garden State when Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff that “New Slang” by The Shins will “change your life”? This scene from the 2012 indie dramedy Stuck in Love carries that same sort of curatorial vibe, with Elliott Smith subbing in for James Mercer as the seminal singer. Not only did “Between the Bars” soundtrack an especially amorous Good Will Hunting scene, but pushing play on this Either/Or highlight is what seals the deal for Logan Lerman to finally kiss Lilly Collins. The right Elliott Smith song can sure create an intimate atmosphere.