FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Elliott Smith in “Strange Parallel”

Elliott+SmithThe 10th anniversary of Elliott Smith’s death earlier this week triggered everything from remembrance essays and “top 10” roundups to tribute shows and a newly published biography. In the span of a decade, the indie singer-songwriter has risen to not only cult favorite but also downright legendary status. Today, even Madonna is performing covers of Smith’s songs, and his work continues to influence and inspire a generation of musicians and listeners, like myself, who hadn’t even reached their teens at the time of Smith’s passing.

His work, drug addictions, and gruesome death have established a reputation for him as an extremely tormented and lonely guy, so it’s easy to overlook his actual life before its tragic end. To celebrate his life on this anniversary, here’s a look back at Elliott Smith through this short documentary by Steve Hanft, Strange Parallel, released in 1998.

The film offers some insight into Smith’s personality through interviews with friends and bartenders at his regular spots, who mostly describe him as “quiet” and comment on how elusive he is, but what makes this a real gem are the trippy sequences depicting a dream Smith had about a “robot hand.” The storyline begins with Smith watching a commercial in Spanish selling a “mano roboto” (at 9:23 in the first video below). Later, Smith receives a flyer that simply reads “Robot hand is the future” (11:24). Eventually, he “surgically” replaces his own right hand with the bulky robot hand, primarily because it’ll supposedly enhance his guitar playing. The whole concept funny and bizarre and sheds some light both on Elliott’s playful side and on his apparent fears about the pressures of becoming a big-time musician.

Other highlights of the movie include Elliott commenting that he thinks, “The music business will eventually crush me, but I’m ready,” and, later, a drill sergeant yelling at Elliott in a bar, saying, “You have to admit that your future is uncertain!” If nothing else, Strange Parallel is a weirdly intriguing attempt to capture some part of who Elliott Smith was, but by the end, the director admits that, “Even though we worked on the film for a few months, Elliott was still a mystery to us.” More than a decade later, that still hasn’t changed.

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