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Brian Lindstrom’s ‘Lost Angel’: Storytelling and bearing witness

Portland filmmaker Lindstrom discusses his new work “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill” and a career profiling “hard-hit people living hard-hitting lives.”


Judee Sill with guitar and dog, February 1971. Photo: Greenwich Entertainment
Judee Sill with guitar and dog, February 1971. Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

On Thursday, April 11, longtime Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom’s nearly decade-long journey making the documentary Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill will finally reach fruition: a premiere at Cinema 21 and nationwide theatrical release the following day.

As its title indicates, the film — which is co-directed by Andy Brown, and which will also be available via the streaming services Amazon Prime and Apple TV+ — is an affectionate portrait of singer-songwriter Judee Sill, hailed for pop songs that were so much more, incorporating a range of influences from Baroque classical music to gospel. Yet Sill, who died in 1979, faced constant struggle throughout her life: abused as a child, arrested as a teen, addicted to drugs as an adult. Despite critical acclaim she was dropped from her label, David Geffen’s Asylum Records, after just two albums. And a car accident put her in constant physical pain. Yet more than a half-century after her first songs were released, Sill’s music has finally begun to attract a wider audience, which Lindstrom and Brown’s movie should only hasten.

On the cusp of Lost Angel’s premiere, Lindstrom talked from his Portland home, which he shares with his author-wife Cheryl Strayed and their children, about this film and its place in a body of work devoted to troubled dreamers, including 2013’s acclaimed Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse, and 2007’s Finding Normal.

Filmmakers Andy Brown (left) and Brian Lindstrom. Photos: Submarine Entertainment
Filmmakers Andy Brown (left) and Brian Lindstrom. Photos: Submarine Entertainment

Brian Libby: It was in November of 2022 that I first talked to you about Lost Angel, as it entered the film-festival circuit. What’s the process been like taking Sill’s story on the road, and building to this nationwide release?

Brian Lindstrom: It’s been really affirming and gratifying. It’s humbling and inspiring for us to see how Judee touches people, how her music and life story resonate. Even people who didn’t know her music going into the film, they come out with a deeper appreciation of not only the music, but, the person behind it. I think Judee just has so much to offer us, both with her music and her life story, the way that she was faced with some pretty big challenges in terms of childhood trauma and how she reached deep and tried to make sense of it all, and then even had the kind of bandwidth and spiritual depth, if you will, to want to then come back and save others. Music was here to heal people, and that’s what she wanted to do. It’s about what the music speaks to and what it does if we’ll let it. I really believe that her music has a kind of healing power.

Libby: Your film reminded me of an interview I did for Oregon ArtsWatch with author William Todd Schultz about his book The Mind of the Artist. It describes an inherent duality: that great artists are often blessed with sensitivity that fuels their creativity, but makes them susceptible to emotional struggle.

Lindstrom: That’s so well put. I think of Judee and what she experienced as a child and how she tried to deal with it, before she devoted herself to music. She was arrested for armed robberies. She said that she only did them because she was trying to feel something. I just love how revealing that statement is and how it completely explains her somewhat reckless approach to life in those early years, just doing basically anything to feel something, because she’d been made so numb by the trauma that she had experienced.


Libby: Her career also makes me think about the long game of recognition. Judee was crushed by getting dropped by her record company a half-century ago. But especially with the help of your film, she’s starting to find that wider audience.

"Lost Angel: The Genius Of Judee Sill" poster. Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment.
“Lost Angel: The Genius Of Judee Sill” poster. Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment.

Lindstrom: I think it’s fair to say that Judee already is bigger now than she’s ever been, and hopefully that will grow. People ask, “Why didn’t Judee sill make it?” I understand the question and it’s a legitimate one. But also I’m hoping that the film might prompt people to kind of reframe that whole philosophy. I mean, can you really tell me anyone who wrote “The Kiss” in any way didn’t make it? And with Judee, the same things that are allowing her music to be rediscovered all these years later may have indeed been the very same things that prevented her from reaching that wider audience in the early 1970s. Maybe it’s that people who did listen to it were moved, and maybe that is ultimately what matters, not the numbers.

Libby: This may seem silly, but I was thinking about Judee Sill being a country-adjacent pop singer-songwriter, not unlike Taylor Swift. There’s Hayley Williams, who covered Judee’s song “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos,” and Williams is friends with Swift. I wonder if Taylor Swift has ever listened to Judee Sill?

Lindstrom: Oh, I hope so. I bet she has. I think the country element is definitely there in Judee’s music, for sure, along with everything else: Baroque, gospel.

Libby: Can you talk yet about your next project?

Lindstrom: Oh, absolutely. I’m currently making a follow-up to my film Mothering Inside from 2014, which follows incarcerated moms and their children at Coffee Creek [Correctional Facility]. A lot of the mothers have been released and almost all of them are thriving. We really wanted to capture that story and maybe send a message that people do grow and change; that there’s a whole bunch of hope and strength that needs to be heard about.

I’m hoping it could come out in the next couple of years. We’ve probably shot about 25 hours’ worth of film, and we want to shoot more, and we’re gearing up to apply for more funding and keep following the stories. Because what’s been so gratifying, Brian, is to see the high school graduations, the first years of college, all these things that society tells us (are) not supposed to happen to the children of incarcerated parents. We see these brave young people just blasting stereotypes and building the lives they want.


Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

Judee Sill, August 1971. Photo courtesy Greenwich Entertainment.
Judee Sill, August 1971. Photo courtesy Greenwich Entertainment.

Libby: The local premiere of Lost Angel is going to be at Cinema 21, as have some of your past films. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship you have with this and other local theaters, and their place in an increasingly streaming-focused film ecosystem?

Lindstrom: Excellent question. Cinema 21 is like my cinematic citadel. As a young man going to college at Lewis & Clark and living in Northwest Portland, if I didn’t have homework to do that night, I would just walk over to Cinema 21. It didn’t even matter what was playing, because it would always be relevant, and I could always learn from it, you know? It’s just such an honor to be able to show my films there, all these years later. What Tom Ranieri and the rest of the crew there have achieved is just incredible. I can’t think of a better example of community. They showed Finding Normal, they showed Alien Boy. It just changed my life, and I’m deeply grateful. I am so delighted that Lost Angel is premiering there. How many great conversations have happened under the marquee of Cinema 21 after a film? It’s just such a sacred place.

Libby: You’re doing with your wife [author Cheryl Strayed] this workshop on the Greek island of Patmos this summer, and I think you’ve done that before. Would you mind touching on that?

Lindstrom: It’s with the wonderful folks at GoodWorld Journeys. We did it last time, I think, in 2016, so this is kind of a sequel, if you will. We do it with our dear friends, the great artists Rachel Dewoskin and her husband, Zayd Dohrn. And it’s really just about storytelling: how it impacts our lives and how people from all different walks of life can come and learn about storytelling.

Libby: Even though your films have some incredible visuals, it feels like you’re focused on being a storyteller more than you’re about some dramatic dolly shot.

Lindstrom: It’s the chance to kind of focus on the question: What does it mean to be human? The person that the film is about, what can they teach us, what can we learn from them? What can they learn from themselves?

Libby: Last fall was the 10th anniversary of Alien Boy, a particular favorite of mine. Do you feel like that film continued to have a life?


Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

Lindstrom: It’s so funny you mention it. Brian, (recently) at the Clinton Street Theater there (was) a screening as part of a whole program at PICA about interactions between police and the community. So it was really gratifying that it’s still being used to prompt discussion and hopefully to make people remember James Chasse and really think about how our police interact with people with mental illness.

Libby: I love what some of these theaters like the Clinton Street and Cinemagic are doing with curation of older films. Maybe these theaters, precisely because you can find first-run films streaming, are doubling down a little bit more on existing libraries of films and, and finding audiences in a new way.

Libby: How did you first get into filmmaking? How early did you know you wanted to do it?

Lindstrom: That’s a great question. My mom was a bartender, my dad worked in a grocery store, and they got divorced when I was seven. I was raised by my mom. It wasn’t like I grew up in a household that told me, “You’ve got to do something incredible.” But I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. His name was Maury Hill, and he was a house painter. He was a certain kind of alcoholic, a binge drinker, which means that he could be rock-solid and dependable about 78% of the time. And then that other 22% of the time—this sounds unkind; I’m just trying to be trying to paint a picture—he would be look like the worst actor portraying a fall down drunk. You never knew what you were going to get.

I just remember thinking at a young age that that my grandpa was a good person and that a lot of people judged him, and it struck me as really unfair. I think at a very early age, I knew that story would be a way to maybe kind of rectify that situation, to restore to him the dignity and the power and love that I felt with him all the time, even at his most drunk, you know? I was really lucky to go to Lewis & Clark College, and I had a professor there, Stuart Kaplan, who said, “I think you really have what it takes to be a professional filmmaker. And here’s a gift certificate to the Northwest Film Center to take a class.” Which I could never have afforded on my own. And literally that changed my life.

Libby: That’s so great. It does feel like maybe you could have been an author or found some other way into storytelling. But is there a particular aspect of filmmaking that you gravitated to?

Lindstrom: No, I love it all. My first love really is documentary filmmaking, and I particularly love cinema vérité, where I’m just a fly on the wall with the camera trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. What I love about that is that I can be a witness, and I have this incredible opportunity at times to reflect the beauty and strength I see in the people in front of me. And then eventually they get to see that. I think there’s something very affirming about that process and that exchange. It’s kind of an empowering communication.


Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

Libby: I love your use of the word witness, because it can be used in a justice sense, yet there can also be a kind of spiritual connotation: bearing witness. Your films seem to exemplify both senses of the word.

Lindstrom: That means a lot for me to hear you say that. And I think you’re right. I mean, I think part of it is just witnessing the person. But then also witnessing the factors of our society that maybe make things really difficult for certain people that don’t happen to be born—fill in the blank—with enough money, or lack of mental illness, or the ability to be clean and sober or whatever it is. It’s really just trying to shine a light on some hard-hit people living hard-hitting lives.

Libby: A lot of us have lived through decades of Portland booming and being celebrated, but now we’re years into this notion that the city or at least downtown is struggling: with addiction, homelessness, crime. Given that focus on marginalized people in your films, what’s your take on what the moment Portland is in right now?

Lindstrom: I can’t help but think back to Finding Normal, which I made in 2007. At that point if you were a street-level addict in Portland and wanted to get clean, if you had the wherewithal to go into detox and could handle the five to seven-day process, and then you were willing to join the recovery-mentor program, you could basically change your life and rebuild a new one. I always took such pride civically that we’re a place where people can rebuild their lives. There was something really powerful in that to me.

And if you would have told me then that a mere 17 years later our city would look like it does now in terms of people really suffering and either not accessing treatment or treatment not being available to them, I would have said, ‘No way. There’s no way we can go backward. All we do is go onward and upward.’

Obviously that was naive. I’m hoping that Portland still can be a place where people can rebuild their lives, because we have a lot of our struggling brothers and sisters who need something. And it’s just really unacceptable on a moral level to see the human suffering that is all around us. You can’t take a walk downtown without encountering people that clearly need help.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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