August 6 would have been the 48th birthday of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, had he not tragically taken his own life in 2003, at the age of 34. Smith’s haunting, candid, low-fi songs made him not only a (reluctant) dean of the ’90s indie crowd, but a repository of perfectly-spun gems for filmmakers to mine and use with their most emotive scenes.

In celebration of Smith’s birthday, life and legacy, here are 10 times – both during his life and posthumously – that his beautiful music elevated iconic film scenes.

Miss Misery in Good Will Hunting (1998)

Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting will pop up a couple more times on this list, as the fellow Portland resident and filmmaker used several of Smith’s tracks in his Best Original Screenplay Oscar-winning film. This particular song Smith wrote especially for the movie; he was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar, but lost out to My Heart Will Go On from that year’s Best Picture winner Titanic. You have to wait until the end of the film to hear the track, as it plays over the very final scene and closing credits. So, 19-year-old spoiler alert for the clip below.


Between The Bars in Stuck in Love (2013) and Rick and Morty (2015) 

There are plenty of bittersweet, Smith-ready scenes in 2012 indie comedy/drama Stuck in Love – starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, and Lily Collins. But director Josh Boone (who also helmed 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars, if you want proof of how emotionally manipulative he can be) chose the diegetic route, having Lou (Logan Lerman) actually play the song on his car stereo in an effort to woo Sam (Collins). Between the Bars is from Smith’s 1997 album, Either/Or.

Meanwhile in the Rick and Morty episode Big Trouble in Little Sanchez (s02e07), Summer forces Tiny Rick to listen to the track in an attempt to remind him of his mortality, and get the little bastard back into his old body.


Angel in the Snow in Up in the Air (2009)

Angel in the Snow is the very first track on posthumous compilation New Moon (2007); all 24 of New Moon’s tracks were previously unreleased. Up in the Air director Jason Reitman chose it to go with the scene in which Ryan and Alex (George Clooney and Vera Farmiga) break in to Ryan’s old high school. If you really want to call the waahmbulance, rewind the clip to see the preceding scene, which puts the simple nostalgic joy of this one into a different (heart-squishing) context.


Needle in the Hay in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Warning: this clip contains probably one of the most awful moments in a Wes Anderson movie I can think of. But the song is absolutely beautiful, and Anderson includes this tiny but shockingly effective pause in its crescendo at the exact moment Dudley walks into the bathroom. Needle in the Hay is from Smith’s self-titled 1995 album.

Let’s Get Lost in Thumbsucker (2005)

Elliott Smith was initially supposed to create the entire soundtrack for Mike Mills’ low-budget, star-studded indie comedy/drama Thumbsucker, but he died before he completed the project. Three of his songs – one original and two covers – are still included, with the (excellent) remainder composed and recorded by Tim DeLaughter and The Polyphonic Spree. Smith wrote Let’s Get Lost especially for the film, and Mills uses it to accompany 17-year-old Justin’s (Lou Pucci) confusion when his normally effective comfort-habit of sucking his thumb doesn’t seem to work anymore. And that is because, you see, Justin’s super spiritual dentist Keanu Reeves hypnotised him. Here’s the hypnotism scene, and after it (in terrible quality, sorry) is Justin’s bewilderment.


Because in American Beauty (1999)

The end credits of Sam Mendes’ multiple Oscar-winning American Beauty are crowned with Because, Smith’s cover of The Beatles’ eerie/sweet, electric harpsichord-led cut from Abbey Road (reportedly both Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s favourite track on the 1969 album). Elliott’s version opens with a spectral acapella, and goes through two languid verses with only his voice layered to create the harmonies; the arpeggio melody line comes in half-way through on tart electric guitar with a thick bassline.

The American Beauty soundtrack was nominated for the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack for a Motion Picture, in 2000.


Angeles in Good Will Hunting (1998)

Angeles is from Smith’s 1998 album Either/Or, which was the last he recorded with indie Portland label Kill Rock Stars; he soon moved to Los Angeles to sign with the Steven Spielberg-founded DreamWorks Records. The track’s lyrics reflect on this huge personal and professional decision, and the chance he ultimately decided to take by leaping westward into the big(gest) smoke. Van Sant paired it with this scene in Good Will Hunting in which Will does exactly the opposite, deliberately sabotaging new love, and a new career, out of fear.


Going Nowhere in Love Liza (2002)

If you’re not familiar with the Kathy Bates and Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) gem Love Liza, this clip might skew your impression of what truly is a comedy albeit extremely dark. (Its tagline is “A comic tragedy”, not “a tragic comedy”, if you want to get phonological about it.) Hoffman is the ideal actor to portray Wilson Joel, a man whose psychological descent after the suicide of his wife includes moments of abandon which are absurdly funny. Director Todd Louiso (working from a screenplay by Gordy Hoffman, Philip’s brother) uses Smith’s Going Nowhere from the posthumous New Moon (2007) to reflect the shape of this man’s emotional slope.

Highly recommended: Roger Ebert’s review, which almost gave me as many feelings as the actual movie.


No Name #3 in Good Will Hunting (1998)

Here’s No Name #3 – one of four ‘untitled’ tracks on Smith’s splendidly sad 1994 effort Roman Candle – accompanying Will Hunting’s triumph after getting Skylar’s number. (“How do ya like them apples?”)

It’s followed by a quiet spell as Baffleck drives the boys back through Boston, and Will is dropped off – as Smith’s lyrics say – “home to oblivion.”


Pitseleh in Keeping The Faith (2000)

I’m loath to leave you on a total downer, so here’s a cute scene from the Ben Stiller/Edward Norton comedy Keeping the Faith, which focuses on marvellous character actor Brian George as a “Sikh-Catholic-Muslim with Jewish in-laws” bartender, who swears he’s no authority on inter-religious love or relationships. Pitseleh – from Smith’s 1998 record XO – doesn’t come in until the very end of the scene, but its lyrics are about unrequited love and its title is a Yiddish word meaning “little one.” It’s one of Smith’s most exquisitely moving, and weirdly uplifting, tracks.

If you or someone you know is dealing with a mental illness and you need help, call the wonderful people at BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Discover Elliott Smith at JB Hi-Fi