These days, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is best known for Big Yellow Taxi, the “Got till it’s gone” track sampled by Janet Jackson in 1997. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and this film spent a worthwhile 90 minutes below the waterline revealing the true extent of her work.
Sensibly it let the music, and Joni herself, do the talking, with help from copious archive footage and an A-list of people (Graham Nash, David Geffen, Herbie Hancock) who were there at key points in her career. With a span of nearly 40 years, there’s too much for a single film to cover, but writer/director Susan Lacy again made the right choice, homing in on the way Mitchell’s life influenced her work, and the way she consciously allowed her work to determine the course of her life.
We saw the solitary, polio-afflicted child in Canada, the 19-year-old single mother forced to give her child away, the innovative, Dylan-influenced newcomer on the mid-60s New York folk scene, and the queen of the late-60s Laurel Canyon rock aristocracy. We saw her born-of-desperation marriage to Chuck Mitchell, and how she refused marriage to the great love of her life (Nash) because she knew that too much happiness would blunt her creativity.
We also heard the results; the eerily mature early songs, her chronicling of the Woodstock generation, and the legendary, soul-baring self-examination of Blue, the album she made after leaving Nash. And how a nervous breakdown (after the Isle of Wight festival, as it happens) produced For The Roses (arguably her best album) then taught her to handle emotional fulfilment, and use it to fuel her moves into rock and jazz in the 1970s.
Like most accounts of Joni’s career, the programme glossed too quickly over her work in the 19 80s (her 1985 song Ethiopia perfectly captured the spirit of Live Aid), and not quickly enough over that of the 1990s and beyond, when first tiredness and irritation, then domestic contentment, took away her spark. But it was the first 15 years that really mattered, and by the simple device of showing them, the film demonstrated how unique and brilliant her achievements in that period were.
Joni Mitchell is, literally, an artist (she was a painter before turning to music), and to hear her speak about her work is like hearing, say, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (also featured on BBC4 this week) talking about a bronze. Viewing music as art is an almost entirely alien concept in today’s corporate music industry, except when acts at the classier end of the market are told to talk that way because it will enhance their brand profile. This film was a welcome reminder that with Joni it’s the real thing.