Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill

Judee Sill was ticketed for fame before low record sales sent her on a downward spiral.

‘Lost Angel’ examines tragic life of singer Judee Sill

The late Judee Sill is perhaps music’s best-kept secret. Possessing a lovely, lilting style perfectly married to gorgeous Bach-inspired melodies melding folk, country and gospel, she never found an audience beyond an impressive array of peers including Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and JD Souther. By the age of 35, she was gone, a victim of hardcore drugs and bitter disappointment.

Yet, the magic of her voice and spirit lives on as a major influence on the works of everyone from Liz Phair to Warren Zevon. But her anonymity might soon change thanks to the fascinating documentary, “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill.” Compiled and directed by Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom, the film is a glorious celebration of an unsung talent whose songs are so of the moment you’d swear they were composed yesterday rather than 50 years ago.

A week ago, I’d shamefully never heard of her. But in the days since screening “Lost Angel,” I’ve become addicted to her celestial voice and her impressive catalog of songs worthy of comparisons to the iconic Joni Mitchell. Just dial up any of her should-have-been classics like “Lady-O,” “The Kiss,” “Soldier of the Heart,” “Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos” or “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” and see what I mean.

But as was the case for contemporaries like Love and Big Star, talent was never enough. She, like them, could not be pigeonholed. And that’s a death sentence in the fickle world of pop music. How do you promote someone who’s indefinable?

That was the dilemma David Geffen faced in 1971 when his brand new Asylum label released Sill’s self-titled debut. Each song was radically different from the one before, with the baroque “Lady-O” mashing up with the clippity-clop of “Ridge Rider.” In other words, her music was not suited to the then-narrow-minded bandwidths of pop radio. Sill further distanced herself by refusing to play the A&R game of building word of mouth. She hated opening for established performers. In her overconfident mind, she was a headliner. Then, there were the drugs, dozens of them, swallowed, injected and snorted. You name it, she tried it.

Fellow musicians like Ronstadt, Browne and Graham Nash, who produced Sill’s first album, tried to warn her, talk sense to her, but their pleas went unheeded. Then, when her excellent second LP, “Heart Food,” tanked, she sank deeper into a depression. But instead of looking inward, she blamed Geffen, even though he thought highly enough to make her the first person signed to Asylum, a label that would go on to land musical legends Ronstadt, Browne and The Eagles.

She got so pissed she camped out on Geffen’s lawn in protest, and later, despite being bisexual, publicly referred to the then-closeted record giant as a “fag.” When Geffen retaliated by tearing up their contract, we’re told Sill appeared dumbfounded. Her work on a third album was instantly ended and Sill succumbed to her darkest instincts, hastening her demise.

Using a compilation of archival footage, voice-overs and hippie-dippy illustrations by Sam Niemann, the movie attempts the impossible in hopes of making sense of an artist whose penchant for self-destruction clashed with a deep devotion to God, often expressing her rapture for the spiritual in her music. It’s as perplexing at the end as it is at the beginning when we learn of a troubled childhood perpetuated by a sexually abusive stepfather and a knack for falling in with the wrong crowd as a teenager. By 18, she was locked up on charges of armed robbery and prostitution.

True to the name, the reform school reformed her; encouraging her to exploit her hidden musical talents by playing organ in the prison’s choir, accepting Jesus as her savior, and returning to the outside world with a purpose. Living out of her car, she tried everything to break into the business, but it wasn’t until a chance meeting with members of The Turtles gained her entry. Impressed, they signed her to their publishing company. And in exchange, she gave them “Lady-O,” the sublime love song she wrote as an ode to her lesbian partner. It was a minor hit for the band, but it got Sill noticed.

Among her new crop of fans was Souther, a budding star himself who would go on to write “Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight” and “New Kid in Town” for The Eagles. The filmmakers feature him prominently among fellow Sill admirers: Geffen, Ronstadt, Browne, Nash, David Crosby and Shawn Colvin. Souther consciously downplays Sill’s significance to him, but you can see the profound affection in his eyes. You also sense the frustration of having lived with a lover who never took advice or criticism well.

Inevitably, he moved on, taking up with Sill’s close pal, Ronstadt. It was a double betrayal that inspired Sill to write “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” a scathing indictment of Souther, with the chorus: “Blindin’ me, his song remains remindin’ me; He’s a bandit and a heart breaker; Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker.”

The song is representative of her inner battle between the love of the flesh and the love of an Almighty. I found the dichotomy intriguing. But like so much about Sill, the authenticity and depth of her beliefs went to her grave unrevealed. All that’s left is her music, the lasting memories of the people she touched most, and the trove of journals and other writings collected for the film and read aloud by actress Sonya Goddy. They reveal an angst-ridden soul with a tendency to alienate everyone who tried to love her, but who could also write a song as heavenly and heartfelt as “The Kiss.”

As the movie’s title so accurately suggests, Sill was indeed a genius. But she was also most assuredly a tortured one, hopelessly trapped between the beauty of her music and the ugliness of a life cut far too short.

Movie review

Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill

Rated: Not rated

Featuring: JD Souther, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Graham Nash, David Crosby, David Geffen and Shawn Colvin

Directors: Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom

Runtime: 91 minutes

Where: In theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+ starting April 12

Grade: B+

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