Gil Reyes isn't sure what to expect when he finally screens his 2009 film, Searching for Elliott Smith, in Portland on Friday, eight years after the singer's death. "I am always nervous before a screening," Reyes says via email. "This time I may have a real reason to be."
Not only does the Los Angeles-based filmmaker and TV news anchor hail from the anti-Portland—where bike rides are terrifying and the music business is more business than music—but Reyes, who discovered Elliott Smith's songs only after his death, had the gall to make a documentary about Portland's favorite son in the city some say killed him. More damningly for some, he did so with the cooperation of Jennifer Chiba, Smith's girlfriend at the time of his death and the woman whom some Smith friends and family members (not to mention a lot of anonymous Smith fans on the Internet) blame for his death.
Even Sean Croghan, the ex-Crackerbash frontman and Smith roommate who appears in Searching as much as anyone, was apprehensive about the film before WW took him to a preview screening. "There's the artist, and then there's all the people after the artist who tell the story they want to tell by using that person's life," Croghan says. "So what was Gil going to do? Did he have his own agenda?"
Reyes says self-help was part of his agenda. One of his close friends had recently committed suicide, and by telling Smith's story, Reyes thought he could work through some of his own pain and confusion. "I discovered with suicide, there's surprisingly some anger and blame being passed around too," he writes. "I didn't want to filter those feelings in the film."
So while most of Searching is about Smith's life—Smith's family didn't cooperate with interviews or song licensing—Reyes relies on friends and contemporaries to paint a portrait of a funny, sensitive and stubborn artist who becomes increasingly self-involved as his drug use takes its toll. Smith's death lingers from the outset, as the film opens with young fans grieving at a mural he used as an album cover, which became a memorial after his death. Shortly thereafter, we see a sad-eyed Chiba acknowledging her accusers and saying bluntly, "I didn't kill him." Near the close of the film, Chiba appears again, walking viewers through Smith's last week and—in grisly detail—through his final moments, when she removed the knife that had twice plunged directly into his heart. The scene is shot without the quick edits and cheesy camera filters that color the rest of the decidedly lo-fi film. It's also gut-wrenching.
After seeing the film, Croghan feels uneasy about that scene. "I've never needed the true-crime details of that day," he says. "That was difficult. Thinking about the way he died is difficult enough. It becomes a little voyeuristic."
Reyes says he's giving Chiba a fair shake. "Is it voyeuristic? That's one way to put it," he says. "But it's also Chiba answering her critics. This time…you can look into her eyes and determine for yourself if she's telling the truth or not."
Croghan says he never thought Chiba killed Smith. He wonders more about the accuracy of his own 2005 interview. "Half the stuff I say [in the film] I kind of call bullshit on now," he says. Primary among these retractions, Croghan thinks the prevailing Portland sentiment—that Los Angeles enabled Smith's death and he would have been better off back in Portland—was based on speculation and occasional phone calls from Smith, who would blame his spiraling drug usage on others. "I don't know anything. All I know is that I loved him very much, and there are people here and obviously in L.A. who love him a lot," he says now.
Croghan, long known as "the famous dead guy's friend," has also struggled with depression, learning to cope with age. That's one reason Smith's death still haunts him. "If he could have held on a little bit longer and seen it through another day and another day," he says, "now he'd be in his early 40s, and maybe just kind of chilled out with those demons at bay. But who knows?â
72 SEE IT: Searching for Elliott Smith screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium at 7 pm Friday, Oct. 21. It is part of the Reel Music festival, continuing through Sunday, Oct. 23. See full listings at nwfilm.org.