The 2023 Melbourne International Film Festival has presented the international premiere of the 2022 documentary Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill. It had already shown in New York late last year but this was the first time in a cinema outside of the USA. It’s a fascinating but tragic tale of the 70s folk singer, who despite her immense talent, couldn’t find the fame and validation she so passionately craved. As the film shows, the odds were stacked against her from the start. Directed by Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom, the film tracks the life of Judee Sill from an abused child to her teen years of addiction, armed robbery and prison, through to her hopes and dreams as an artist in 1970’s Los Angeles.
The film opens with Fleet Foxes on stage with their frontman Robin Pecknold introducing the Judee Sill song The Kiss. He tells us that Judee gave us two of the greatest albums ever made in her self-titled debut and the follow up Heart Food. As Fleet Foxes deliver a gorgeous version of the song, the audio morphs into Judee’s original version and the juxtaposition of the two spotlights the pure, raw beauty of her voice and the uniqueness of her delivery.
Throughout the film, newer artists such as Big Thief’s Adrienne Lenker, Buck Meek and Weyes Blood eulogise her talent as they discuss how much she has influenced their own music. It highlights the fact that finally the lost angel’s music is being discovered and appreciated, sadly accolades that she’s not around to enjoy.
Clearly Judee Sill had a great voice but she was also an amazing songwriter, musician and arranger. As Brian Lindstrom said in an online interview recently, “she was able to orchestrate and arrange and have in her mind, how the 4th violins in the second stanza would sound … it was awe inspiring.” As Linda Ronstadt says in the film, the only other person who had that ability was Brian Wilson.
Much has been said about the reasons why she didn’t receive the success her talent deserved but standing between triumph and failure was Judee Sill the flawed human being. Her lyrics were often dark and the themes of religion, sometimes mixed with sex just didn’t resonate with 1970’s America. It was all a little too much for those enjoying the light hearted, good time rock of her label mates such as The Eagles, Linda Rondstadt and Jackson Browne. Plus she was a strong woman, fiercely independent and opinionated. As JD Souther puts it in the film, “she didn’t know how to “play the game”, addressing hecklers in the audience and shouting at them for requesting cover songs. Today those bold characteristics would be celebrated.
David Geffen, who signed her to his label Asylum was taken aback when he first met Judee and was told that she was “a heroin addict, that she had been a prostitute and that she had been in jail … so that’s a lot of information! I have no judgment on these things, I was only interested in her music.” Jackson Browne was a big fan too and said that Heart Food (the title of her second album) perfectly described her music but questioned why it wasn’t enough to nourish her personally.
Kudos must go to the movie’s creators for being able to tell this story without the assistance of a plethora of historical video. Most of the footage shown was either in black and white or grainy film shot on super 8 cameras, apart from Judee’s appearance on the UK’s The Old Grey Whistle Test. For much of the movie they used animation as a story telling device. Sam Niemann’s (The Waterman, The Blubburbs) 70s-style animations, inspired by Sill’s own drawings became a major artistic element, although overused by the latter stages of the film. The lack of footage from the time is also indicative of her low public profile compared to her contemporaries, which I’m sure added to her struggle to succeed.
Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill is a story that had to be told, as much as her music needs to be heard. Check it out at the Melbourne International Film Festival and hopefully at cinemas soon after.