Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom on Spotlighting A Musician Before Her Time in “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill”

Judee Sill had a knack for creating an ear worm, undulating songs where the sophistication of the lyrics and the depth of feeling they entailed were never tamped down to accommodate the melodic needs of a song and only served to make their hooks a little stronger. No less than Linda Ronstadt, one of her contemporaries in the 1970s, recalls in the early moments of “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill” that she had “more musical chops than anybody on the scene except for Brian Wilson,” and when one of the film’s co-directors Andy Brown had first come across a video of “The Kiss,” a single from her 1973 album “Heart Food,” he immediately shared it with his friend and fellow filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, who enjoyed it for what it was, but soon neither could get it out of their head and when the latter was randomly told he should make a film about the singer/songwriter not long after, Lindstrom was calling back Brown to see if he’d be interested.

That was in 2011 and over a decade later, Brown and Lindstrom have wrangled Sill’s unruly story for the screen in much the same way as the chanteuse corralled words for her songs, lingering less on the tragedy of an untimely death at 35 when she was overcome with a nagging drug addiction than the career it cut short. While mainstream success proved elusive for her two albums, Sill was considered a marvel by her fellow artists and music industry tastemakers, becoming one of the first artists signed by David Geffen to his Asylum Records label alongside Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell. (That he makes a rare appearance in the doc becomes a statement in itself.) While she didn’t have to travel far to be a musician, already spending much of her youth in Studio City before making her way to the Sunset Strip, it was her music where she could be adventurous, first realizing from her late father’s piano downstairs that she could harmonize and with Stephen Stills producing tracks on her self-titled first album, she could become her own chorus with overdubs.

The complexities of the music would reflect a deeply complicated person, who was known to turn to sex work and other criminal activities to support herself in the years before she could make a living with her music and could be both ferocious and fearful when it came to protecting her artistic integrity as she struggled to find commercial success. “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill” recognizes the best way to understand who she was was through her art, be it her songs or the illustrations that would often accompany lyrics in her journals, all of which come to life in Brown and Lindstrom’s captivating doc via animation either in its traditional hand-drawn form or interviews with subjects who are passionate in describing how Sill worked out such sophisticated songs.

Bound to inspire a new wave of fans when her music is already starting to be rediscovered by generations of artists that followed in her path from Shawn Colvin to Fleet Foxes, “Lost Angel” is arriving this week in theaters and VOD after premiering at DOC NYC and Brown and Lindstrom spoke about the film’s 10-year journey to the screen and finding their own opportunities to experiment with form in articulating how she tinkered with her craft.

What made you want to take this on?

Brian Lindstrom: Just the power and the beauty of Judee’s music really compelled both of us. Then when we really got into the facts of her life, it seemed so incongruous. How does someone make this kind of ethereal music while also having had the childhood she did and all the trauma she had? How does all this fit together? [That] empowered us to start this 10-year journey that resulted in the film.

From what I understand, it wasn’t until year four that you actually were able to obtain her personal archive. Did that change how you could tell the story?

Andy Brown: Well, it allowed it. What happened around that same time is we also got an audio recording of an interview she gave in 1972, where she told her life stories in an hour-long interview, so when we got the archival material — her journals and drawings that started around ’73 to ’79 when she passed — we then had a voiceover we could construct from the journals to complete, and we were able to have Judee’s voice then in the film, which is what we always had hoped to do. The drawings in the journals that are in the film became the basis of the animation style, so it was also as if Judee were animating the film and then we got the multi-tracks of [her album] “Heart Food” so that Judee is in fact scoring the film as well. But getting that material took a while. And it definitely informed some of the choices of future interviews we wanted to do. But Brian can tell you how we started the interview process 10 years ago.

Brian Lindstrom: There was a great booklet released with her “Dreams Come True” posthumous album that Pat Roques and Pat Thomas put together. It had almost all of Judee’s surviving friends [giving an] oral history and we used that as our template and went to L.A. and interviewed everyone we could find. What was so powerful for us was, first of all, they were all so happy that we were making the film because they really wanted Judee’s music to reach a wider audience. They knew the healing power of it. But they also would share their personal recollections of Judee and just what a lovely person she was. She was a shining light — the life of any party — and she was a lot of fun to be around, so we knew that we could make a film that put to rest this lie of the Wikipedia version of Judee as a doom-and-gloom, tragic artist. She was much more than that.

You get in depth with the music to a degree that’s really unusual where certain songs such as “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” are really picked apart for what Judee was doing differently that made them unique. Was it much of a decision to get that granular?

Brian Lindstrom: Well, Tim Paige [who analyzes the song] is such a delightful person. I think Andy described him as joyous, and that’s absolutely right. We did know it was a fine line, like if you’re telling the audience why something is great, that can very quickly feel didactic and boring, but Tim’s just like genuine enthusiasm and his incredibly perceptive comments really helps the audience understand the song in a new and deeper way. I also just want to praise our editor Mike Ward, who really helped us figure out how best to use the music, where it should be and in terms of telling the story, Andy, Mike and our producer Peter Kinney really just tried any idea that seemed worth trying to not be locked into anything and to really let the best idea come to the surface.

Andy Brown: Yeah, and if you are collaborating, it’s important to respect each other’s ideas and try everything, because there are many times where someone would mention an idea and I wouldn’t think it would work, but then I was wrong when I saw it. It’s longer in a way too, because you’re trying everything, but it makes the process way more efficient.

Brian Lindstrom: It infuses the process with a sense of discovery that really gives you a lot of energy to keep going.

Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Andy Brown: Only the idea of getting some more contemporary artists into the film. That was something we had thought about earlier on, but that came later and there were more we could have approached, but we’re lucky that they’re in the film. That was not something that we initially were going to focus too much on.

Brian Lindstrom: Yeah, Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek and Shawn Colvin and Fleet Foxes give the film and Judee’s legacy a present tenseness that I think is really important to show that her music is still alive, it’s still touching people, it’s still being performed, and it still matters.

Is it true that “The Kiss,” the same song that the Fleet Foxes open the film with now, is the one that initially inspired you to make this?

Andy Brown: Yes, it was very fortuitous because we were struggling with the opening for a long time. We were making a deadline to finish the film and the Fleet Foxes went on tour, it was August of 2022, and they were performing “The Kiss” live. They weren’t going to film a show, but we asked if we could, so we were then able to incorporate that into our new open that we were already trying to get right that we couldn’t get right. We were just lucky.

Brian Lindstrom: Very lucky. [laughs]

“Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill” will open on April 12th in New York at the IFC Center, Portland, Oregon at Cinema 21, San Francisco at the 4-Star, Santa Fe at the Center for Contemporary Arts, the Callicoon Theatre in Callicoon, New York, and Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It will also be available to stream on Amazon and Apple TV.

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