Review: ‘Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah’

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ATHENS (WOUB) – Stories are central to country music; and few success stories in popular music of *any* genre are more jaw-dropping than that of The Judds.

In 1984, during the zenith of Gen X adolescence, a 38 year-old Baby Boomer mother and her teenage daughter from Ashland, KY had a smash hit with a song – “Had a Dream (For the Heart)” – which Elvis had failed, only seven years prior, to crack the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. It was The Judds’ very first single; and their next eight singles, in a row, all hit number one.

The shock of The Judds’ improbable success visibly confounds even their lead singer, daughter Wynonna.

Throughout director Patty Ivins Specht’s Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah, the title subject repeatedly expresses sincere astonishment as she revisits archival footage and realizes the sheer swiftness of their rise in retrospect. While forging ahead with The Judds’ Final Tour, Wynonna also experiences shock over the magnitude of The Judds’ enduring popularity, selling out arenas 32 years after their final studio album. The documentary depicts her opening the show with that aforementioned debut single, “Had a Dream (For the Heart),” and marveling “is this really happening?” while the audience roars.

It appears that re-experiencing the shock of The Judds’ ascent and sustainability is a key coping mechanism for Wynonna to process the shock of The Judds’ conclusion. On the day before The Judds were inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and 19 days after they celebrated the announcement of their Final Tour with a choir-backed performance of “Love Can Build a Bridge” at the 2022 CMT Music Awards, Naomi Judd took her own life.

Wynonna acknowledges her mother’s death within the first minute of the documentary.

“My mother died by suicide. That is not something that is easily said in a room of people,” Wynonna says. This moment is preceded by an old interview clip of Wynonna and her mother, where Naomi revealed that she had reobtained Wynonna’s toddler cowgirl outfit. When presented the opportunity to have the outfit’s worn-out fringe replaced, Naomi is emphatic that “I want every ice cream stain that’s on there.”

We then see the cowgirl outfit hanging on the wall of Naomi’s office, while Wynonna goes inside for the first time since losing her mother.

This sequence serves as a metaphor for the documentary’s direction. Like the prescient cowgirl outfit, the progression of The Judds’ Final Tour is presented lovingly, including the blemishes acquired along the way. In addition to showcasing the razzle-dazzle of the show’s spell-binding theatrics and slick musical ensemble, the documentary doesn’t shy from chronicling a couple of headline-generating mishaps.

For example, in Sioux Falls, an explanation is given for the malfunction during Wynonna’s B-stage entrance to the show that brought her to her knees; as is the moment that the spookiness prompted Wynonna to decide to nix the B stage on the next night’s show.

Ohio and Kentucky are featured very prominently in the documentary. Prior to The Judds’ Final Tour launch, WOUB published an interview segment with Wynonna that promoted the tour’s stops in Toledo and Lexington; and both concerts wound up becoming milestone chapters in the film.

The Ohio show is the first tour stop where sister Ashley Judd – who became an A-List actress in blockbuster movies, a decade after Wynonna and Naomi first hit #1 with “Mama He’s Crazy” — made a surprise onstage appearance, to the delight of fans. Ashley gives insights into her own grief journey, both on stage and on the tour bus beforehand. After their mid-show conversation concludes, Wynonna sings “River of Time,” the title track of The Judds’ 1989 album that Naomi co-wrote.

In conversation with WOUB a few months afterward, Wynonna dissected how performing this song in grief of her mother’s passing takes on a completely new resonance.  The significance of the Judd sister reunion in Ohio was great enough that Wynonna’s blouse from this show is now encased in the American Currents exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Archival footage of the Judd sisters growing up in Kentucky is peppered throughout the film; and Kentucky is where Wynonna selected to conclude The Final Tour (before it was extended in 2023). The Lexington show is the sole tour date where Faith Hill was the special guest to fill Naomi’s absence; she and husband, fellow country megastar Tim McGraw, both sit down for interviews. Ashley Judd returned to the stage for The Judds’ final concert in their home state, which provokes in-depth discussion of their Kentucky upbringing.

The complicated relationship of these superstar sisters has ebbed and flowed throughout the years; Wynonna gets candid about why this is, and how her mother’s sudden passing compels her to mend fences with her sister for good.

Key art for Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah streaming.
Key art for Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah streaming on Paramount +. 2023. [Image courtesy of Paramount +]
Between Hell and Hallelujah does an admirable job of assessing the unfathomable grief journey that Wynonna experiences after her mother’s death. She was more frank about the depth of her conflicted feelings than I had anticipated; particularly when she expressed her regret about not pushing a police officer aside, to kiss her dying mother goodbye before she slipped away.

Wynonna also walks us through her decision process to ultimately proceed with the tour that The Judds had just sold tens of thousands of tickets for – a predicament that has no real precedent in popular music history – and why she obliged the idea of a documentary in the process: “I am here to help you not do what my mother did.”

However, grief can also spark moments of joy and the documentary is filled with touching moments of connection. Various female country singers stepped up to fill Naomi’s shoes on select dates of the Final Tour, and the film includes highlights with each of them, both in concert and behind the scenes. One stand-out segment is when Little Big Town harmonizes “Turn It Loose” with Wynonna, backed only by acoustic guitar, where the rich layering of their five voices can be heard crisply.

Ultimately, though, there would not be a tour if fans weren’t congregating in arenas; and the fans are featured prominently in the documentary. The movie features individual interviews with several fans, and it often liberally pans across the tour’s audiences – especially while the audience is a parcel of the show’s presentation. A sea of phone flashes sets a celestial-looking scene for “Love Is Alive,” leaving Wynonna’s mouth agape; and during “Mama He’s Crazy,” which Wynonna performed entirely solo, she momentarily ceased singing and playing guitar to allow the audience to sing back to her — a phenomenon that Wynonna described to WOUB as “like being suspended between here and Heaven.”

While paying homage to fans that she recognized from attending her earliest shows, Wynonna also observed that subsequent generations were accompanying them. This certainly resonated with me, as I attended my first Judd concert with my godmother — who first caught The Judds at an Ohio county fair, and even named the rabbit that she won in a game there, before I was born — at the same Toledo show where Wynonna was joined by her sister.

WOUB’s Ian Saint and his godmother, Erin Bowden, seated before The Judds’ Final Tour show at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio on October 1, 2022. Wynonna remarked in the documentary about the breadth of multi-generation families; and her sister Ashley Judd first joined her onstage at this show.
WOUB’s Ian Saint and his godmother, Erin Bowden, seated before The Judds’ Final Tour show at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio on October 1, 2022. Wynonna remarked in the documentary about the breadth of multi-generation families; and her sister Ashley Judd first joined her onstage at this show. [Ian Saint I WOUB]
Overall, Between Hell and Hallelujah is a well-paced chronicle, that balances appeal to both diehard Judd fans and casual observers alike. Even for those who are not fans of country music at all, the story of The Judds’ journey from Ashland, Kentucky to the Country Music Hall of Fame is nothing short of captivating — and it seems that this provides solace to Wynonna.

“Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah,” directed by Patty Ivins, premieres on the Paramount+ streaming network tonight. The Judds’ final concert broadcast, “CMT Presents The Judds: Love Is Alive — The Final Concert,” will air on CMT at 8 p.m. ET the following Saturday; stay tuned to WOUB for a forthcoming review.