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A Judee Sill Documentary Ensures Her Musical Genius Won't Be Forgotten

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Person with long hair and blue eyeshadow set against flowering bush
Judee Sill in August 1971. (Greenwich Entertainment)

Unlike many of the famous people interviewed in the documentary Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill, I can’t remember exactly when I first heard Sill’s music.

I know it was decades after the 1971 release of her self-titled debut album, released by David Geffen’s brand-new Asylum Records. It was definitely long after her death, in 1979, by overdose. As someone who wasn’t alive in the ’60s and ’70s, I placed Sill’s music into my mental filing cabinet alongside contemporaries and label-mates like Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, as if it had always been there.

In fact, she took up far more of my mental space than that crowd. Sill’s “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” became my go-to example of a baffling yet perfect breakup song. At low points, I listened to “The Kiss,” from her 1973 sophomore album, on repeat. Her haunting voice, sliding through strange tempo shifts and baroque-inspired compositions, still sends shivers down my spine.

Person with eyes closed singing into mic with rose-colored glasses
An undated photo of Judee Sill singing. (Greenwich Entertainment)

What I didn’t understand then, and what Lost Angel explains patiently, admirably, is just how short-lived Sill’s career was, and how far she had fallen from the heights she hoped to achieve as “the world’s greatest living songwriter” before her death at age 35.

In the strange landscape of endlessly available streaming music, songs are now often loosed from albums, free-floating from any connection to era or location. This can lead to a transcendent form of time travel, like when modern artists cover Sill’s work in front of massive cheering crowds. But it can also obscure significant biographical facts and musical context.

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Lost Angel, directed by Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom, carefully stitches Judee Sill’s life and music back together. It’s a story that follows a familiar music industry arc, but still holds surprises. We learn that it was in reform school, for instance, that Sill gained her “gospel licks” as the church organist. And that she arrived in reform school after she was arrested, at age 18, as a “teen-age housewife who joined three friends in staging over a dozen robberies ‘just for kicks’” (according to the San Fernando Valley Times).

Sill showed early musical aptitude, learning to harmonize with herself on a piano as a young girl at her father’s Oakland bar. After his death, Sill’s mother married a Disney animator and moved the family to Los Angeles. By Sill’s accounts, it was a chaotic and abusive household she couldn’t wait to escape.

We hear from family, friends, lovers and musicians who came up with Sill in Los Angeles piano bars and folk music haunts. (Many of those musicians found extraordinary success.) We see bits of her songwriting, her drawings and diaries. Animations illustrate some of her more occult and religious themes — she credited divine inspiration for her songs.

But the most excellent parts of Lost Angel arrive in Sill’s own voice. It’s a relief when various star-studded covers melt into Sill’s original versions. Her singing is so crystalline it’s utterly heartbreaking: pure beauty coming out of all that pain, loss and addiction. In the final years of her life she went through numerous surgeries after a car accident; she fell back into hard drugs after doctors wouldn’t prescribe her painkillers.

Billboard with album cover and information set against blue sky
The billboard Asylum Records rented in November 1971 for the release of Judee Sill’s debut album. In the documentary, Sill says she rented a car to sit across the street and just look at it. (Greenwich Entertainment)

Beyond the songs, we also hear her tell parts of her own story. At one point, a recorded interview shows her striving, thankful for what she has, but restless. Also a treat: her deadpan on-stage banter (when her audience was receptive), in which Sill frames her songs with tidbits of biography I’m sure listeners believed were wildly embellished.

Lost Angel doesn’t bother with the precise dates of performances or arrive at a definitive answer to why Asylum dropped Sill after just two albums. Linda Ronstadt offers perhaps the final word on that matter. “There wasn’t anybody out to get her,” Ronstadt says. “She just didn’t deliver the goods that would have resonated in that culture in that time.”

Total precision is not the goal of Lost Angel, which relies much on 50-year-old memories. But this film does achieve what it ardently sets out to do: introduce Sill to those who are ready to experience the resonance of her music in the present moment. Footage of countless YouTube covers of “The Kiss” scrolls past, and the talking heads offer up an idea of valiantly living on through one’s art.

I’m sure Judee Sill would agree. I just wish she was here to tell us so.


‘Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill’ begins streaming on Amazon and Apple TV on April 12, 2024. It comes to the 4 Star (2200 Clement St., San Francisco) April 16—17 with live pre-show music from Silverware and Free Key Choir.

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