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Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill

Singer-songwriter Judee Sill never received her due, but this documentary shows that the ballads, and the balladeer, are deserving of her listener's attention

Her DNA was heard on Andy Partridge’s “orchustic” music; her lyrical content was much more singular than the folk-tracks spearheaded by Jackson Browne; and her quest for spiritual apotheosis within the confines of sexual politics made her comparable to George Harrison and Leonard Cohen. And yet Judee Sill was inexplicably overlooked as an artist, achieving greater popularity in the decades after her death. Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill peers at this troubled artist, utilising a collection of candid interviews, as well as some dazzling animations used to articulate Sill’s inner thoughts.

Directors Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom wisely let their subjects do the heavy lifting, and despite the emotional undercurrent – Sill’s death in 1979 was ruled as suicide by a coroner – the interviewees regularly burst out in laughter as they recall some of the zanier anecdotes of the era. Three men claim that they inspired one of her tracks, although J.D.Souther later faced her wrath on ‘Jesus Was a Cross Maker’; a riposte to his dalliance with Linda Ronstadt (ironically, Rondstadt covered the track herself on one of her later albums.)

Sill was no slouch, regularly calling out hecklers in her audience, and in one witty moment of retribution, invited one dissenter to join her onstage. Sill’s music provides the glue, and matched against the backdrop of photos and mementos, her ballads, particularly The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown, are given new life. Graham Nash speaks with genuine awe and amazement when he recalls the work they created together; “It didn’t take much producing on my part.” Sill herself admitted in interviews that she rarely felt happier than the elation she felt entertaining audiences with her songs and vocal arrangements.

Behind the facade lay a woman burdened by sadness. Following the death of her father, Sill’s mother entered into a second marriage , one that was typified by “boozing”, “arguments”, and possible sexual assault. Keen to escape from the clutches of a nefarious stepfather, Sill turned to a life of crime, chaos and adrenaline. Music proved an escapism for the burgeoning songwriter, but by the time her second album (the genuinely beautiful Heart Flood) disappeared from the charts, Sill retreated to a lifestyle typified by heroin. With the context of hindsight, Heart Flood now sounds like a collection of litanies; a dialogue between a wayward sinner, and her God.

Many of the commentators suggest that Sill did herself no favours by criticising Asylum Records founder David Geffen, suggesting that her rebellious behaviour won her fewer admirers among executives. She reportedly referred to Geffen as a “fag” who had greater interest in the male singers on the label, although Geffen unequivocally denies these stories onscreen. Some of the younger musicians (Weyes Blood among them) suggest that Sill – a plain looking musician with brilliant, singular ideas – struggled to gain a following at a time when artists were expected to look a certain way. Whatever the reasons, Sill’s music didn’t match her commercial ambitions, and she spent many of her last days draped in darkness and solitude.

Considering the scope, some of the interviewees are understandably sidelined to allow for a palatable runtime. That said, it’s a shame the film doesn’t show more of David Crosby, who was a fixture of the 1970s rock scene in America, and undoubtedly has more to say about Sill than the 32-year-old Adrianne Lenker. Curiously, the film opens up with a cover performed by Fleet Foxes, before cutting to a far superior rendition delivered by the writer herself.

Little matter: Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill is something of a mini triumph, paying close attention to a songwriter cruelly overlooked by her contemporary peers and audiences. Her melodies bounce off the cartoon silhouettes, although the songwriter herself is infinitely more interesting, and more colourful, than the animated sequences.

Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill premiered at the 10th edition of the Doc’n Roll Film Festival.

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