“Is that the place with the bathroom attendants?” asks Elliott Smith when reminded of a New York City venue he played last fall. “A person was hanging out there giving towels to people for a dollar tip,” he adds, clearly sympathetic to the janitorial staff of that swank nightclub. How fitting, then, that Smith’s voice and fervent confessional folk songs should dominate the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, the hit film featuring Matt Damon on mop patrol as the unassuming, calculus-loving janitor at elite university MIT.
Just as Damon’s character is liberated from logging hours mastering the no-wax shine when a professor discovers that he is also a master of logarithms, so was Smith, 28, rescued from obscurity by the movie’s director, Gus Van Sant. An Oregon native, Smith toiled on the Portland scene for years, both as a solo act (with three indie albums under his belt) and as frontman of noise-rock band Heatmiser. Neighbor Van Sant “would come to see some of my shows,” says Smith, now a Brooklyn resident. “We were hanging out one time, and he told me what he wanted his next movie to be. Eventually, someone told me Gus put some of my songs [in] it.”
Taciturn in a way typical of those who are jarringly eloquent in song, Smith downplays his own success. “This was a really good movie,” he mutters, “but I don’t have much interest in branching out into soundtracks in general.” Yet he was impressed with one experience — working with soundtrack savant Danny Elfman, who backed Smith with an 80-piece orchestra. “It was easier than I thought,” he enthuses. “I was surrounded by perfectly tuned notes instead of my normally untuned guitar.”