Around the world with SF International Film Festival documentaries
SFIFF "I'm the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous," Elliott Smith admits in Heaven Adores You, Nickolas Rossi's moving portrait of the late indie musician, who went from regional star to superstar after his Oscar nomination for 1997's Good Will Hunting. "It was fun ... for a day," Smith reflects — and anyone who saw Smith's hushed Academy Awards performance, on a night that also included Celine Dion's chest-thumping rendition of "My Heart Will Go On," has likely never forgotten it.
But Heaven isn't overly concerned with Smith's sudden celebrity and mysterious end (in 2003, he was found with two apparently self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest, but his death was ruled "undetermined," rather than a suicide). Instead, it's an artfully crafted study of a unique talent, avoiding music doc clichés in favor of more creative choices, like illustrating college-radio interviews — far more revealing than anything Smith would share with journos seeking Oscar sound bites — with gorgeously composed shots of Smith's beloved Portland, Ore. Heaven widens to contextualize Smith's importance within the 1990s Portland scene, with former members of his pre-solo band, Heatmiser, and fellow musician and longtime girlfriend Joanna Bolme among the interviewees. (Unfortunately absent: Hunting director Gus Van Sant.) But Smith's soulful, eerily timeless songs (described here as "little pictures made of words") remain Heaven's focus — appropriate, since they were always Smith's focus, too.
A less-tragic tale of reluctant fame unfolds in Jody Shapiro's Burt's Buzz, which opens as its subject, Burt's Bees co-founder Burt Shavitz, arrives in Taiwan to what can only be described as a hero's welcome. Given the fact that Burt's Bees products crowd drugstore shelves as ubiquitously as Neutrogena and Cover Girl, you'd be forgiven for assuming THE Burt lives the lavish life of a lip-balm magnate. Which is not the case, since the aging Shavitz prefers an exceedingly spartan life in rural Maine, with a woodstove providing heat and a begrudging acceptance of running water. "A good day is when no one shows up, and you don't have to go anywhere," Shavitz opines.
Not that he has any choice. When Burt's Bees went from homespun to corporate, all the dough went to Shavitz's former business (and romantic) partner Roxanne Quimby, who'd bought him out when their relationship went sour; most of Shavitz's income seems to stem from making personal appearances for a company he no longer has much else to do with. (Quimby's upbeat son is interviewed in her stead, though we do glimpse her in excerpts from a TV program entitled How I Made My Millions.) Still, Shavitz — knowing that Burt's Bees is stuck with him forever, since his name and bearded visage decorate the brand's folksy packaging — remains remarkably blasé about his financial situation. He's not into material possessions, though he's comfortable enough to have a "majordomo" help him with his affairs, and is enough of a diva to demand rice milk rather than the soy milk proffered by his eager-to-please Taiwanese hosts.
Shapiro's documentary is a bit overlong (do we really need to see ol' Burt Skyping with his dog?), but it wisely highlights the most interesting element of Shavitz's story, which is not "Did he get ripped off?" or "Look at this crazy hippie!" but "Is this guy more self-aware than he's letting on?" Though his assistant insists "He's like Colonel Sanders, and he simply does not understand that," it's never entirely clear — though Shavitz's own assertion that "No one has ever accused me of being ambitious" certainly has the ring of truth, rather than bitterness, to it.