Mr. Smith goes to Hollywood

Guttersnipe Elliott Smith brings the Oscars down to earth

The moment I heard about Elliott Smith’s Oscar nomination, an image popped into my head that was hard to shake. I saw a tuxedo-clad Smith singing his nominated song—”Miss Misery” from Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting—amid elaborately coiffed dancers in a big production number at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; amid the rapt audience members, I could make out Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg, and the inevitable Winona Ryder.

If you’re not familiar with Smith, co-founder of the now-defunct Portland band Heatmiser and an amazingly talented singer-songwriter, suffice to say that his dress sense is charitably described as Thrift Store Poster Child. The vision of him lacquered and buffed is nearly as shocking as the idea that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would nominate a song by a critically acclaimed but relatively unknown indie rocker. Smith, who has released three solo records on small Northwest labels and is due to release his major-label debut later this year, is the least likely musician to receive Hollywood’s air kiss since Isaac Hayes showed up in a suit made of chains to accept the statuette for “Theme from Shaft.”

At this year’s Oscar ceremony, audiences will have the pleasure of hearing the nominated songs performed by Trisha Yearwood, Aaliyah, Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, and Elliott Smith. Apple, apple, apple, apple, orange. Or maybe even watermelon.

How could this happen? Is the AMPAS music branch opening the doors to less-than-million-sellers?

Smith’s explanation of how he wound up with five songs on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack—”This was sort of a happy accident”—appears to be equally true of his nomination. The obvious difference between Smith and his competitors is in the writer’s relationship to the song. In Smith’s case, song and singer are indivisible. Only one other nominee, Diane Warren—nominated for “How Do I Live” from Con Air—bothered to write both lyrics and music for her song. Yet even Warren wasn’t committed enough to her creation to find a signature singer. “How Do I Live” was recorded and released by two different artists: Trisha Yearwood sings the nominated version and Leanne Rimes has the pop radio hit. And Smith is the only nominee who actually sang his own song. Alan Menken and David Zippel enlisted Michael Bolton for their song “Go the Distance,” from Hercules; Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ “Journey to the Past,” from Anastasia, was sung by Aaliyah; and James Horner and Will Jennings’ “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic is the latest Celine Dion vehicle.

Once you hear the songs, the differences multiply. Musically, “Miss Misery,” which starts with just Smith’s vocals and an acoustic guitar, is lo-fi compared to the other nominees’ lush orchestrations and hammy singing. Lyrically, Smith’s song is distinctive as well. Compare the following first lines:

Jennings: “Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you/That is how I know you go on.”

Ahrens: “Heart don’t fail me now/Courage don’t desert me/Don’t turn back now that we’re here.”

Zippel: “I have often dreamed of a far-off place/Where a hero’s welcome would be waiting for me.”

Warren: “How do I get through one night without you?/If I had to live without you, what kind of life would that be?”

Smith: “I’ll fake it through the day, with some help from Johnnie Walker Red/Send the poisoned brain down the drain to put bad thoughts in my head.”

Though they’re all more or less love songs, there’s a striking difference between Smith’s poetic realism and the airy abstractions and mythic declamations of the other lyricists. The popsters seem trapped in the proverbial gutter, looking longingly at the stars. Smith, on the other hand, is wallowing down there.

Unlike the usual Hollywood story, my Oscar vision has an unhappy ending: Ryder, currently romancing Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon (I know it’s true—I read about it in Parade), gets introduced to Smith backstage, and the results, of course, are disastrous. Not because Damon’s heart gets broken, but because Ryder has proven herself to be the Creative Grim Reaper when it comes to rock songwriters. Just ask Paul Westerberg and Dave Pirner.