There’s an irony in the fact that the best music documentaries often come about because an artist failed to get their creative due until after it was too late for them to appreciate it. Sadly, that’s the case with Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill, which shines a light on a beloved singer-songwriter from the ‘70s who released two albums in her lifetime – her self-titled 1971 debut and her sophomore effort, 1973’s Heart Food – before dying of a drug overdose in 1979 at the age of 35.
Directed by Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom, Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill made its debut at DOC NYC 2022 on Sunday, November 13.
Here’s the description from the festival’s website:
LOST ANGEL: THE GENIUS OF JUDEE SILL
Never heard of American singer-songwriter Judee Sill? Discovered by David Geffen in the early 1970s, Sill combined the electricity (and self-destructiveness) of Janis Joplin, soulful poetry of Leonard Cohen, and a complete lack of public recognition for her innovative, brilliant work before her premature death at the age of 35. LOST ANGEL thrillingly revives Sill’s legacy, as she is posthumously recognized by numerous contemporary artists for her original and compelling visions, and recorded in fresh interpretations by young new artists.
We Are Classic Rock was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to screen the documentary ahead of time as well as chat with directors Brown and Lindstrom, who gave us the full scoop on how they first became Judee Sill fans, how the structure of the film came together, and why it proved surprisingly easy to get such musical luminaries as Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, and others involved in the project.
We Are Classic Rock: I loved having the opportunity to watch the film ahead of time, but having spent several years writing for Rhino Records' website, I can't believe I didn't know more about Judee Sill before this.
Andy Brown: I think I know a lot about music, but I'm always amazed at how many people still discover her on a nearly daily basis.
I guess the obligatory first question is to ask how you each found your way into the fan zone for Judee.
Andy: Well, it started when I read about her from Andy Partridge of XTC around the time they put out their...penultimate album, I guess, Apple Venus, and he talked a lot about her. And I started listening soon afterwards, and then YouTube started, and the "Kiss" video from The Old Grey Whistle Test was uploaded there, and I was just blown away. And I showed Brian the video maybe a year later - this was maybe 2011 or 2012 - and...Brian, you want to take over from there?
Brian Lindstrom: Sure! Well, I was of course blown away by that performance, and flash-forward about a year later, I was finishing a film - it was literally the last day of the sound mix - and at that time, my kids were small and a friend of ours was babysitting. And I went to pick up our kids, and my friend Michael, who's a Judee Sill fan, said, "Why don't you make a film about Judee Sill?" And I hadn't really thought about it, falsely thinking that, by the time Andy and I had heard of her, probably somebody else was already making a film about her. And the more Andy and I kind of dug into her story, the more it just seemed like, wow, there's a lot here! So Andy and I decided to go for it, kind of using Judee's motto, "Onwards and upwards, fuck the odds!" [Laughs.]
Andy: Yeah, it was nine years. It wasn't constant work. There were a lot of fits and starts. But it was all self-funded, so it just took awhile. It took awhile to get the archival material. Certainly someone else would've tried to do a Judee doc in the interim, but we were fortunate enough early on to lock in a lot of the interviews. So we interviewed a lot of her close friends and colleagues early on. We got those done. So it sort of planted our flag. But then it just took a long time to actually get it finished, because it was self-funded. But also, when you're going to make a documentary, it's like doing a biography. You need to get the material. You need to make sure you have everything. And it took awhile. I had in my closet until recently all of Judee's worldly possessions. But that took like four or five years for us to get from her cousin. So it just took awhile.
Brian: We really wanted as much as possible - and at the beginning we didn't know if this would be possible - to make it a first-person film, as much in Judee's voice and hand as possible. And as Andy was saying, it took awhile to attract those elements so we could do that.
I was wondering if, when you first started, given that she was an under-the-radar artist to begin with, you were concerned about how much of a challenge it was going to be.
Brian: We knew it was going to be a challenge. But I think we were also intrigued by that challenge and where it might take us.
Andy: It still is a challenge! [Laughs.]
Brian: Yes! And we had a hunch that animation might be part of the film, part of a way to kind of get the audience into Judee's experience, and then when we were lucky enough to get a lot of her drawings and journal pieces, we knew that we really had the material to kind of bring Judee to life.
You said it took awhile before you got hold of her actual journals and such. Did you approach the people who'd worked with her first, or did you start with her family, knowing that the latter might prove harder to get in touch with?
Andy: So when Brian's friend randomly mentioned Judee Sills, he was assuming he didn't know who she was. But I had in fact slayed him with that video a year earlier, so he emailed me right away and told me what his friend had just said, and I emailed back, "Should we [make a film]?" And the next day I was on the phone with Alicia Sill, who was Judee's... [Hesitates.] Okay, this gets a little complicated, but Judee's estate is her niece, Donna, and Alicia, the widow of her nephew. Donna is in our film. Alicia... Because her last name is Sill, I was able to track her down, and the next day after that email with Brian, I was on the phone with her! So it was all done through the family first, but then it went down the traditional route of music docs and tracking down other people and so on. There's an interesting story - Brian tells it well - about how we got a tape of Judee's voice, because, as he said, we wanted her to tell her own story.
Brian: Yeah, in one of those little strokes of luck that I think the cinema gods bless us with if we work long enough and hard enough on a project... [Laughs.] One of our favorite interviews with Judee was done by a wonderful journalist, the late Chris Van Ness of the L.A. Free Press, and Chris didn't have much of an online presence because he was retired by then, but I was able to sleuth that he had been an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, and we're so grateful to a very kindly secretary in the English department there whom I called out of the blue, and she said, "Chris Van Ness... You know what? I think we have an address for him!" And that started this great chain of events. Chris at that point was in a wheelchair, and Chris said, "I think I have a tape of that interview in my attic, but I literally can't get up there." So Andy went and met Chris and went up into the attic, dug through all of the things, and found the tape! And then at that point we were, like, "This tape has already been in a box for 50 years, is it going to have any audio material even left on it?" And Andy had it transferred, and it was just one of the most exciting moments of our making the film when we first heard her talking, her actual speaking voice. It was, like, "Wow, we have a film!"
Andy: And it was saying a lot of the things that she'd said in the Rolling Stone profile that was basically an oral history, because she had such a colorful life. Because she did that interview - the tape that we found - around the same time as the Rolling Stone interview she did. So we knew then that we could do it the way we wanted at that point: in her voice. The challenge really became visual, because there's so little archival material. We added very little filmed archival material than what existed. We have some stuff we found, but for the most part, there was nothing. So we knew we had to animate, that was going to be part of it, but luckily, in the journals were many, many drawings in Judee's hand. She was a really talented, gifted artist. So we were able to not only have her drawings be a visual component of the film, but we were able to come up with an animation style based on those, on her own style. So it really solved a lot of problems both getting that archive of Judee's stuff plus that tape. It kind of helped steer us in the right direction.
Brian: So in a sense Judee really narrates and animates the film.
Andy: And scored it! Because we also got the multi-tracks for Heart Food and her posthumous record, Dreams Come True. So we're using her stems as soundtrack when it's not the song itself that being discussed.
Brian: And I must say, using those stems just... It even reinforced to us what a genius she was, because there's something just amazing about hearing, like, a vibraphone track and realizing how she was able to know how all of this was going to fit together.
Andy: And score it herself!
Brian: Yeah! And when we think about the great loss of Judy's death, one thing is that I just wonder if she would've gone on to be an incredible producer. You know, she was so at home in the studio, so talented, and really could...visualize how it all fit together, if that's the right word.
Andy: She certainly would've written a requiem for an orchestra. [Laughs.] I have no doubt of that.
There's definitely an argument to be made about her being a female equivalent to Brian Wilson, as far as her abilities on that front.
Andy: No question. She just didn't live long enough, but no question. Really, the word "genius" gets thrown around, but...this is all in her head. Nobody else did this - except Brian Wilson - where they could actually learn how to score everything and then actually write the score out with all the instruments: cello, French horn...
Andy: Bagpipes. Everything! And we had the scores in her hand for all that stuff.
I was reading some online comments from people who hadn't actually seen the film yet, and they were saying, "Oh, man, there's these current artists who are featured in the trailer, I hope that's not all it is." I had to assure them that, having seen it, there are current artists like Fleet Foxes toward the beginning and toward the end, but it's almost like you used them to bring those viewers who were unfamiliar with Judee's work into the film and say, "Yes, current artists like her, too, and here's why."
Brian: Yes, exactly.
Andy: That was the point of using them, yeah. Absolutely.
Brian: I mean, we didn't want this to be a nostalgia piece, and I really think we made a documentary about a person who just happens to be a musician, rather than a music doc.
Andy: Yeah, kind of like a portrait of the artist. I think that was the style we were trying to come up with.
I have a 17-year-old daughter, and her jaw dropped when she heard David Geffen's remarks in the trailer. ("When I met her, she told me she was a heroin addict, that she'd been a prostitute, and that she'd been in jail, so...that's a lot of information.") And even though I knew Judee's work in passing, I certainly didn't know those aspects of her story.
Brian: You know, one thing I love about Judee is that she contains multitudes. [Laughs] Literally the day before I interviewed David Geffen, I was in Lake Isabella, California, interviewing her old boyfriend, Walter Fisk, who lives in a trailer. So in two days' time, I went from a pretty hard-scrabble existence to literally the richest private residence in North America! And Judee bridges that gap.
As far as the people who knew and worked with her, did you have a wish list that you were drawing from, or did you have people who you knew right off the bat were going to be up for participating?
Andy: We knew right off the bat based on a lot of work done by people before us, including Pat Thomas and Andy Zax and the people involved with the Dreams Come True posthumous release. There was a booklet there that had interviews with all her friends. So we used that as the template, and it made it a lot easier, because we knew who to contact. And then it became a matter of other people who we became aware of who were fans of hers that we might want to talk to. Shawn Colvin, obviously, who's been such a big help to us and continues to be. She covered Judee in 1994 and has been a fan for a long time. I don't know where she fits into that contemporary artist thing you mentioned, but she's done a lot for Judee's legacy.
Brian: She sure has.
I was curious if you tried to get any of the guys from The Turtles, since they famously recorded her song "Lady-O."
Andy: Yeah, Mark Holman politely declined because... I don't know exactly why, but he didn't want to say negative things. Perhaps. [Laughs.] You know, Geffen stole her from him, in a way. He did not have positive things to say about Geffen! But, yes, we did try.
And I feel like Warren Zevon would've happily participated if he hadn't passed away.
Andy: Oh, yes! That would've been great. And one other person was going to be in it, but he passed away...and now I'm drawing a blank on his name!
Brian: Al Jarreau!
Andy: Al Jarreau, yeah! We had an interview set up with Al Jarreau, and he passed away. But, yeah, they were good pals.
Brian: When Judee was in the hospital, Al would come to her bedside and sing for her.
Andy: One thing I was going to point out when you mentioned your daughter watching the trailer is that Judee... We approached this to a large degree as a story about somebody who had really horrible trauma in their life. In childhood, she was almost certainly sexually molested by her stepfather and ended up having all these problems. She grew up as a middle-class kid in L.A., fell in with kind of a tough crowd, and ended up doing those bank robberies and so on, and became a heroin addict, and in prison... She was arrested for prostitution and forgery and had to kick heroin in jail, and she decided to become a singer-songwriter at that point. Four years later, she was on the cover of Rolling Stone. That's a triumph. But then there was a lot of bad luck and a lot of bad things that happened afterwards, and it was a period of time maybe where it was harder to get help for those things and less awareness about them.
One of the things I mentioned to my daughter... She asked how Judee died, and I said, "Well, it was a drug overdose, but she'd already kicked drugs once before, and after being in a car accident, because of her history as an addict, she wasn't able to get the harder prescription pain medications, so she ended up seeking street drugs to help with the pain.
Andy: I mean... Actually, to be honest, I think she had slipped back into addiction after the pain had gone away. And it was more of a psychic pain, to some degree, about everything she had lost. She still had pain, but she really struggled with addiction in the last couple of years. She did go to rehab, in and out, but it was very... It was more the psychic pain at that point, I'd say. I don't think she tried to kill herself. It was listed as a suicide, but that's just what they wrote for any O.D. in those days. But I think in some way she was ready to go and risk it if it happened, because of how far she had plunged down at that point. But she was writing songs in her journal up until a couple of weeks before that, so she hadn't given up all hope.
Brian: Yeah, she never quit writing. She never gave up on her muse.