Musician Elliott Smith has made an abundance of legendary contributions to cinema, both in his short lifetime (he passed away at the age of 34 in 2003) as well as posthumously. He is, arguably, the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation. In film, Smith is, perhaps, most well-known for his tracks on Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting in 1997, namely, his Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery.” That song played over the oft-quoted “Had to see about a girl” scene. Although Smith lost to Céline Dion’s (of whom he used to do a spot-on impression) “My Heart Will Go On” at the Academy Awards, “Miss Misery” and Good Will Hunting launched him from indie musician to somewhere in between the stratospheres of successful and superstardom overnight.
The Nebraska-born, Texas-raised, Portland transport’s hauntingly graceful tracks have also been featured in several other prominent films and television shows, including many indelible scenes. His hollow, whispery voice, forever yearning for a different reality, remains a staple in film. If Van Sant hadn’t run out of music to listen to on a cross-country road trip and been forced to listen to discarded soundtrack music for To Die For, perhaps Smith’s brilliance wouldn’t have been exposed to the masses. And he wasn’t exactly the type of person capable of bearing the pressures of fame. He had enough demons, as it was. However, fame was inevitable for someone as talented as Smith. Alas, it’s a delicate, almost selfish relationship we, as fans and admirers, have with artists. They create. We consume, and consume, and consume. If their art is deemed mainstream, we become exponentially more voracious. Sometimes, it can destroy a person. Sometimes, it can enable their most dangerous temptations. Sometimes, it can awaken their most sinister demons.
However, as well as through his many remaining fans, Smith’s music lives on through a multitude of varied cinematic styles across a range of genres. There’s something indescribable about his sound that screams “soundtrack.” One could envision virtually every track on every album of Smith’s in a hypothetical scene, sequence, or montage in film or TV. Perhaps it’s because of his painstakingly methodical instrumentation (Smith insisted on playing every instrument on his albums), unparalleled finger-picking, or his vivid, poetic anecdotes on taboo yet topical subjects. Whatever his timeless appeal is, he’s consistently been on the minds of Hollywood music supervisors over the past two decades. So, to celebrate a silent cinematic genius, let us take a look at several memorable uses of Smith’s tracks in film and TV.
Aside from “Miss Misery,” Smith and Van Sant use No Name #3” (originally featured on Roman Candle in 1994), “Angeles,” “Say Yes,” and two versions of “Between the Bars,” one new track with Danny Elfman’s orchestra to back Smith’s vocals (the latter three tracks were originally featured on Either/Or in 1997), in Good Will Hunting. While Smith’s addiction was relatively manageable (it came and went in waves throughout his career), Van Sant was the director able to excavate the most substantial original, collaborative songs out of the musician.
The next noteworthy feature in a mainstream film, Smith’s B-side cover of The Beatles’ “Because” plays over the closing credits of American Beauty in 1999. One can find The Beatles’ sound emerge throughout Smith’s discography; his love for the famed British rock band began when he first listened to the White Album as a child. Not necessarily known for his singing from a technical perspective, Smith perfectly emulates the four vocal parts in the song, harmonizing a cappella, displaying his impressive range. His monotonous vocal delivery pairs well with screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes’ deadpan, pitch-black suburban satire.
Before Milo Ventimiglia went on to break hearts in This Is Us, and way before Chris Evans would become Captain America, they starred together in the Fox TV series Opposite Sex in 2000. Although it only lasted for one season, Marc Silverstein and Abby Kohn’s (I Feel Pretty) dramedy paved the way for other mainstream shows in the 2000s to feature indie artists on their soundtracks. Further, TV audiences were introduced to Smith in proper fashion with “Say Yes” in the pilot and “The Biggest Lie” (originally featured on his first self-titled album in 1995) in episode 2. Opposite Sex was the predecessor to the One Tree Hills, The O.C.s, and the Gossip Girls, all of which featured Smith on their shows’ trendy, indie-leaning soundtracks.
In honor of Edward Norton’s sophomoric directorial feature, Motherless Brooklyn, released in 2019, the Smith-Norton connection takes us back to Norton’s directorial debut, 19 years earlier, with Keeping the Faith in 2000. In a scene during which Paulie (Brian George) tells Father Brian (Norton), “May those who love us, love us. For those who don’t love us, may god turn their hearts. If he cannot turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so that we may know them by their limping,” “Pitseleh,” plays faintly in the background. It’s a fitting track to accompany Father Brian and Paulie’s conversation, as both the scene and song explore the philosophical ramifications of unrequited love
“Needle in the Hay” (originally featured on Smith’s self-titled album) plays during Richie’s (Luke Wilson) suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001. It’s easily one of the most iconic scenes in film of the past 30 years, with Richie whispering, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” in fragile, Smith-like fashion, Dylan Tichenor’s stop motion-like editing, and Smith’s foreboding background tone. In retrospect, the scene is eerily reminiscent of the real-life circumstances surrounding Smith’s death in 2003, which, although is thought to have been a suicide, the autopsy report ruled the cause of death inconclusive. Sadly, Smith was in the throes of addiction at the time of The Royal Tenenbaums’ post-production. Wes Anderson and Smith envisioned a soundtrack of The Beatles covers, but difficulty obtaining rights from the, at the time, remaining three Beatles, was a hefty roadblock. Still, Smith recorded an underwhelming cover of “Hey Jude,” just in case. “He was really struggling,” frequent Anderson music supervisor Randall Poster told Vulture. The quality of his work was inconsistent, contrary to his sober-leaning collaborations with Van Sant and Mike Mills (Thumbsucker).
The B-side “Going Nowhere” (posthumously released on New Moon in 2007), is featured in Love Liza in 2002. Another suicide-themed film, it also offers viewers one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s (may he rest in peace) finest performances. Smith’s track plays during a montage in order to convey Wilson’s (Hoffman playing a Smith substitute) declining emotional state. “Going Nowhere” is a song about not being able to forget one’s past, being stuck in a toxic present, and unable to see through a clouded future. At the end of the montage, Wilson finally opens his wife’s suicide letter for closure. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter and the darkly comedic nature of the montage, it’s unlikely that Smith’s family would have approved the use of that song if Love Liza were released after Smith’s death.
Viewers can find another tasteful use of “Angeles” in the underrated The Girl Next Door, released in 2004, this time for pure, comedic effect. The track plays over a sequence during which the film’s main character, Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch), has a flashback about getting accepted into college while staring at an unassuming girl bending over.
Before Smith could complete the score for Mills’ Thumbsucker in 2005, he passed away, prolonging production. Originally slated to include all original and cover tracks from Smith, Thumbsucker would have been Smith’s most significant cinematic collaboration. Tim DeLaughter and The Polyphonic Spree wrote the soundtrack instead, however, Smith’s “Let’s Get Lost” (originally featured on his final, posthumously-released From a Basement on the Hill in 2004), and covers of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” and Big Star’s “Thirteen” still made it on the soundtrack. Particularly effective is Mills and music supervisor Brian Reitzell’s use of “Thirteen.” Mills told Rolling Stone of Smith’s contribution and passing, ““I saw him five days before, and he’d just finished the cover of ‘Trouble’ for us. It’s one of the last things he must’ve done. It’s just sad…He’s a huge hero of mine.” Ironically, Smith was clean at the time of his death and reportedly in a positive place, emotionally.
Arguably the most impactful teen TV series alongside Gossip Girl in the 2000s, The O.C. stole the hearts and ears of many young viewers. In season 2 in 2005, two songs from Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill graced the series’s soundtrack; “Twilight” and “Pretty (Ugly Before)” are featured in episodes 7 and 10, respectively. Even soapy TV dramas find room for Smith’s singular sound. He’s a versatile instrument. Soapy isn’t to say The O.C. isn’t a solid show. Pump your breaks. I’m a super fan, here.
Van Sant recycled “Angeles” for Paranoid Park in 2007, adding Smith’s “The White Lady Loves You More” (originally featured on his self-titled album) to accentuate his exploration into the light and dark sides of teenage skate culture and themes of youth angst, isolation, rebellion, and self-destruction. The latter song plays over a moody skate montage, it’s muted sound complimenting Van Sant’s muted visual palate, the lyrics readily applicable to displaced teenage affection, consumption, and desire in modern suburbia.
Another one of Smith’s posthumously-released B-sides, “Whatever (Folk Song in C)” (from the album New Moon), is featured in a 2007 episode of The O.C.’s thematic companion show, Gossip Girl. It’s a corny, albeit touching scene during which Serena (Blake Lively) tells Dan (Penn Badgley) that nobody has ever looked at her the way in which he does. This scene is a prime example of how Smith’s sound can be used for romance as effectively as it can be used for melodrama.
In a 2009 episode of Ugly Betty, another posthumous B-side, “Angel in the Snow,” (also from Smith’s album New Moon), plays during a hospitalization montage with Ignacio (Tony Plana). Filmmakers were beginning to venture out from Smith’s mainstream catalogue. With lyrics such as “Don’t you know that I love you / Sometimes I feel like only a cold still life / Only a frozen still life / That fell down here to lay beside you,” it translates as a platonic love letter to Ignacio expressing how important of a figure he is to Betty (America Ferrera).
In Up in the Air, “Angel in the Snow” plays over a melancholic George Clooney montage in 2009 in order to convey to the viewer the sacrifices one makes in the sky over the course of a lengthy career. Again, Smith’s sound is used harmoniously with themes of loneliness and isolation. Writer and director Jason Reitman articulated Smith’s aptitude for cinematic sound, perhaps, as well as anyone ever has. “Elliott Smith’s voice was an instrument created for scoring film,” said Reitman in a Guardian piece. “He sings like a gently-strummed guitar. His lyrics don’t interrupt the on-screen dialogue, but rather, they serve as underscore. They add weight and emotion without interrupting the on-screen conversation.” Maybe that’s why filmmakers so frequently recycle his sound; it’s malleable. Ever-changing. Open to interpretation.
In a 2009 episode of Private Practice, the six-year spinoff series of the mega-hit Grey’s Anatomy, “Angeles” is used, yet again, this time over a montage in which Naomi (Audra McDonald) discloses news about accepting an offer and Addison (Kate Walsh) asks Dell (Chris Lowell) to deliver Morgan’s (Amanda Detner) child. Of all the “Angeles” uses, this remains the weakest. However, it’s a testament, 12 years after Good Will Hunting’s release, to the song’s influence in film and TV.
Smith’s popular track “Somebody That I Used to Know” (originally featured on the album Figure 8 in 2000) plays during the final scene and end credits of a 2012 episode of True Blood of the same name. It marked star Stephen Moyer’s directorial debut, and featured Smith’s track beginning at the tail end of the meeting with the new vampire hierarchy through to the end of the credits.
In the cheesy but charming 2013 film, Stuck in Love, Louis (Logan Lerman), an outcast, true to Smith proxies, plays “Between the Bars” for Samantha (Lily Collins) when they’re in his car together. An inarticulate, antisocial young man, Louis is attempting to connect to another human being without speaking, on a deeper, innate, rhythmic level. So he does so through music. “Between the Bars” is about accepting a whole person, the positive and the negative that comes with it – a snapshot of Louis and Samantha’s relationship as well as the central theme of the film.
And now, a meta-scene articulating Smith’s genius on a popular show. Rick and Morty, to be exact. The show played a snippet of “Between the Bars” in its second season in 2015. The song is used as a plot device to “defeat” Tiny Rick. When Morty holds Tiny Rick down and plays him “Between the Bars,” Summer begs him, “Listen to it, Tiny Rick. Listen to Elliott Smith. Feel what he’s feeling.” After listening, a transformed Rick responds, “Oh, god. What is life? How can someone so talented die so young?” He proceeds to understand the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, themes so often present in Smith’s music. It’s at once an homage to a once-in-a-generation artist that serves as an introduction to Rick and Morty’s younger viewers, a brief lesson in empathy, reminding viewers of the importance of trying to understand a struggling mind, a reminder of our own mortality, and series creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s unapologetic proclamation of their own love for Smith.
In a 2016 episode of the The Blacklist, “Between the Bars” plays while an important series of revelations to the show’s overall arc are revealed through Red (James Spader) during a montage. I won’t spoil anything to the plot, specifically, but it’s another tonally different yet equally artistically effective usage of the track first featured in Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting.
In season 2 of 13 Reasons Why, which aired in 2017, Clay (Dylan Minnette) cries in the shower as a result of the devastation of what has occurred with Hannah (Katherine Langford) over Smith’s cover of “Thirteen.” It’s the moment Clay releases the emotion he’s bottled up since Hannah’s suicide. Clay, an awkward, quiet outcast, could be another Smith stand-in. Music supervisor Season Kent explained why Smith appeals to teenagers, specifically boys: “The song kind of says it all,” Kent told Paste Magazine. “It is that song for the scene. Elliott Smith still speaks to so many people, especially teenagers. I think for boys, too…All of our editors, who are all men, all were really drawn to that song. I think he just speaks to adolescence in a real way.” It doesn’t hurt that the show’s themes of depression and suicide are consistently explored throughout Smith’s discography.
Mr. Robot uses “Everything Means Nothing to Me” (originally featured on the album Figure 8) during a scene in 2017 in which Darlene (Carly Chaikin) returns an old picture to Eliot’s (Rami Malek) apartment. Like many Smith tracks, there’s a universal appeal to his contrast of sound to that of lyrical tone; oftentimes, Smith would play joyful chords and melodies while simultaneously expressing heartbreakingly disquieting lyrics from a burdened mind. This episode is about Darlene processing and letting go of the past. Having just confessed to a murder, learned an unsettling truth about Angela (Portia Doubleday), and attempted to reconcile with her brother, Smith’s repeated lyrics, “Everything means nothing to me,” are a reflection of Darlene’s erratic emotional state.
Ryan Murphy’s The Politician uses “Between the Bars,” yet again, in 2019 during a scene in which Payton (Ben Platt) and his mother (Gwyneth Paltrow) must say goodbye to each other at the train station. As aforementioned, “Between the Bars” is about accepting a person’s flaws along with their more flattering traits. Who does that more than our mothers? Payton and his mother have a particularly close relationship. Having to put on a stoic front for his class presidential campaign, Payton’s pain and demons are absorbed by those closest to him, his mother bearing the brunt of it. This dynamic is reminiscent of the song’s lyric, “People you’ve been before that you / Don’t want around anymore / That push and shove and won’t bend to your will / I’ll keep them still.” Another gorgeous contrast among Smith’s music, there’s something especially powerful yet tender in someone fearlessly proclaiming that they’ll make a loved one’s pain, fears, and struggles their own.
Smith’s tracks have also been featured in the films The Maker and Hurricane Streets in 1997, Antitrust and Southlander in 2001, Ora o mai più (Now or Never) in 2003, Die Österreichishe Methode in 2006, George Rule and The Go-Getter in 2007, American Pie Presents: The Book of Love in 2009, and Love, Rosie in 2014, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot in 2016, and the television shows One Tree Hill in 2003 and 2006, Cold Case in 2005, CSI: NY, Criminal Minds, and Shminiya, Ha in 2006, Heroes in 2007, Life in 2008, Skins in 2008, and Fresh Meat in 2011.
All of these uses add a depth to certain expositional aspects of character arcs in film and television for either particularly lonely, conflicted, afflicted, melancholic, depressed, or misanthropic characters, or deeply emotional scenes. However, at times, a Smith song can highlight a heartwarming scene of love, honesty, compassion, a longing for happiness, or a fond memory. Oftentimes, as aforementioned, his songs simultaneously convey both sides of his unique interpretation of human nature through the use of contrasting musical sound to the thematic elements in his lyrics, paralleling the duality of Smith as a human being.
Addiction, depression, anxiety, suicide, death, family dysfunction, insomnia, heartbreak, loneliness, love, companionship, life, enjoying the minute moments we so often take for granted. These are all common themes listeners will find hidden beneath the surface of Elliott Smith’s songs. Intense, honest, authentic, and wide-ranging, filmmakers continue to not only find these themes easily relatable and therefore accessible to a larger audience, but also to find new ways to morph Smith’s malleable music to fit their own specific tone. As Reitman said, Smith’s voice is its own instrument, and a note can be interpreted in a plethora of ways. In that sense, Smith’s massive discography aside, viewers won’t be hearing any less of Smith’s music in film and TV in the foreseeable future. Regardless, through the many memorable scenes he’s contributed to and a loyal fanbase that grows with every new soundtrack feature, Smith has joined the ranks of the immortalized music gods and lives on forever in our memories.
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