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Reviving the tale of a musical ‘Lost Angel’

Portland documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom ("Alien Boy," "Finding Normal") and co-director Andy Brown discuss their new film about the life and sorrows of '70s singer Judee Sill.

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Singer Judee Sill and friend, on Feb. 5, 1971. Photo courtesy Submarine Entertainment

Over the past decade and a half, Portland documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom has made a succession of beautiful, inquisitive requiems and survivor stories.

In 2007, his cinema vérité-style feature debut, Finding Normal, followed three long-term drug addicts, garnering numerous film-festival awards and critical acclaim (including from ArtsWatch critic Marc Mohan, then at The Oregonian, who included the film in his year-end top ten). In 2013, the Lindstrom-directed true crime documentary Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse put a spotlight on police brutality (quite prophetically, it turns out) while also celebrating the life of a beloved if troubled local indie-rock-scene fixture.

Besides these features, Lindstrom, a Portland native who attended Parkrose High School and Lewis & Clark College before earning an MFA in directing and screenwriting at Columbia University, has also made crusading social-interest documentaries such as 2015’s Mothering Inside, about a pioneering prison program reuniting inmate-parents with their children, and 2019’s We Are Forbidden, a New York Times video op-ed produced with Lindstrom’s wife, bestselling author Cheryl Strayed.

Lindstrom’s new documentary, Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill, is at first glance a departure. For the first time he has a co-director: Andy Brown, a former ‘nineties movie actor (most notably 1994’s The Daytrippers) who went on to work in series development, and who originated the idea for the film. This is also Lindstrom’s first look at a historical figure, drawing more deeply from archival material than his past works.

An early 1970s billboard ad for Sill and her music. Photo courtesy Submarine Entertainment.

Yet Lost Angel’s subject—a singer-songwriter whose early-seventies albums for David Geffen’s Asylum Records gained critical acclaim if modest sales, amidst a life-long struggle with addiction that led to her early death in 1979—makes a compelling Lindstrom subject, as well as a fitting followup feature nine years after Alien Boy. After all, James Chasse, before succumbing to schizophrenia and before his violent death, had self-produced a popular local fanzine, inspiring the song by Portland punk legends The Wipers from which Lindstrom’s film takes its name. Sill achieved greater international notoriety, but in her life could be found a similarly toxic, tragic story.

Both features have also had long gestations, six years for Alien Boy and nine to make Lost Angel. Each makes creative use of its subject’s diary entries and drawings, bringing alive what could otherwise have been collections of talking-head interviews. Each film feels like a kind of planted flag: a passionate reclamation project on behalf of its subject. Professional expectations or industry pressures notwithstanding, these are cinematic labors of love.

Recently, on the eve of Lost Angel’s premiere at the major New York documentary festival DOC NYC 2022 (during which time it will also be available to stream Nov. 14-27), Lindstrom and Brown spoke about movies, music, collaboration, and a certain pair of false teeth that helped inspire Lindstrom as a kid.

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How did this movie come about?

Andy Brown: I had heard about Judee Sill from one of my favorite artists, Andy Partridge of XTC. There’s an interview with him in a BBC radio doc about Judee that’s really good, and he actually weeps in it. He grew up a Judee fan. A lot of these Brits watched her on The Old Grey Whistle Test, twice [in 1972 and ’73]. I found on YouTube a clip of her performing “The Kiss” on that show. It just really blew my mind. I showed that clip to Brian maybe a year later, and then a year after that, Brian had just finished a film, and a friend of his said, ‘You should make your next documentary about Judee Sill.’ The next day we started making the movie. That was nine years ago.

Brian, this both is and isn’t a departure for you. Judee Sill struggled with addiction and perhaps she has been marginalized in a sense, compared to the fame she was starting to achieve. But she was not marginalized in the same way as a schizophrenic kid in Portland like, say James Chasse, the subject of your film Alien Boy.

Brian Lindstrom: Thank you for the reference to Alien Boy; that’s the film I’d just finished when we started this whole journey. I think in a way almost all my work on some level is about childhood trauma and the efforts to resolve that. And sometimes those efforts involve programs like in Finding Normal: the Recovery Mentor program. Sometimes those films are about an absence of a program, or a malicious force like the Portland Police Bureau—I don’t know how else to put that; sorry.

With Judee, I felt like there were these same issues here. We had someone who used their incredible musical gift to try to kind of solve all that, to try to achieve a union with God and the cosmos to kind of heal those things. So in my mind, it’s really a continuous line through all these films. But I can also see your point about how it is a departure. It’s not cinema vérité, it’s not a procedural about someone’s murder. It’s really trying to tell someone’s life story, you know? Andy and I really wanted to do that in a first-person way, so that Judee was narrating her life story and even animating her life story. We were so lucky to have Judee’s journals and drawings and audio recordings that allowed us to do that.

What about your working method as co-directors?

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Brown: We’re old friends. We met in film school and we get along well: I think we both are very open to whatever the best idea is, without it being some weird power struggle. We don’t argue. We have disagreements, but it’s always kind of just listening to each other and trying to get to the right point. Our editor, Mike Ward, who is also from Portland, is also like that. He’s very patient. It just allows a sort of collaborative process that was very much about finding the best idea.

A color sketch by Judee Sill, for Judy Himmell. Courtesy Submarine Entertainment.

Lindstrom: We were trying to almost channel Judee. What would Judee do? What would she think of this? Not in a way that sugarcoats her story or tries to elevate her kind of to a crazy degree. But really, just like, ‘What is the reality? What was the reality of her life?’

Brown: And then her fine aesthetic sense was a guide for us at all times to try to aspire to that. You know, it was the sort of perfectionism that she had.

Brian, in a 2013 TED talk, you told a childhood story about your grandpa losing his dentures during a cross-state train trip, and offering a $5 reward to the kid who found them, which actually worked. It was funny, but also sad, because the dentures were lost during a bout of binge-drinking. In the talk, you said all your films are about looking for your grandpa’s dentures—the “Grit and Grace,” as you called it. Can you talk about finding Judee Sill’s dentures, so to speak?

Lindstrom: I really appreciate you making that connection. And I don’t think Andy and I could have worked on this film for nine years if it was just kind of a one-note story: career boom, and then she died. There would be no kind of nuance to that. I think what has driven us both all these years is that as Shawn Colvin says in the film, Judee is always looking for the good in the evil. She finds it within herself, and she’s got all these dichotomies. Yet through all of that, through all the loss, through all of that, she never stopped writing. She was writing songs up until a week before her death.

I just think there’s a real inspiring thing that Judee gives us. Her last lines that she sings in the film are from her song “Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos”: However we are is okay. I think that she’s kind of guiding us how to interpret her life, almost. It isn’t like, ‘Whatever you do is fine, no problem.’ That’s not what However we are is okay means. It means that we look deep and we radically accept ourselves. And then given that kind of inspiration and knowledge, we can move forward and heal those parts of ourselves. Her music is such a huge tool in healing.

What about the challenge of getting some of these people to talk, like David Geffen, Linda Ronstadt, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne?

Brian Lindstrom: To go way back, Nick Hornby was an early film friend of this project, and he is a friend of Jackson Browne’s.

Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, didn’t he?

Yeah. He gave me Jackson’s email, and Jackson immediately responded and agreed to an interview. Then, bless his heart, he reached out to David Geffen, and Geffen agreed to an interview.

Jackson and Graham Nash and Linda Ronstadt and JD Souther, they really were motivated because they want Judee’s music to be rediscovered. They really felt like it was it wasn’t right that it didn’t get its due when Judee was alive.

Brown: Everyone was enthusiastic and appreciative of what we were doing because they wanted Judee to get recognized.

So many musicians will identify with that tension between talent and unrealistic sales expectations.

Brown: She was maybe a little impatient, too, because she knew how good she was, and yet she had to pay these dues that she just hated having to do, because opening for Three Dog Night in a hockey arena in Winnipeg was a nightmare for her. I just feel like she admitted she needed to become more patient, but it was hard.

Judee Sill in 1971. Photo courtesy Submarine Entertainment.

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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