When I was growing up in the seventies, my sisters and I played Joni Mitchell albums all the time. By the time I was twelve, I had her masterpiece Blue memorized and was attempting to learn “Carey” on the guitar. In 1983, I traded in my Joni albums for cash, and didn’t listen to her music again until my sister lent me the DVD of Joni Mitchell – Woman of Heart and Mind: A Life Story. I suddenly realized why I loved Joni’s music so much.
This documentary, narrated by Joni herself in several places, is thorough and interesting. It provides revelations for old fans, and displays her brilliance to potential new ones. Through poverty, a child she had to place in a foster home, a bad marriage, fame, and a near nervous breakdown, Joni managed to persevere and write incredible songs. And unlike performers such as Liz Phair and Madonna, Joni never commercialized herself. “The reason I’m so unruly in this business,” She said, “is because I never wanted to be a human jukebox.”
The testimony of friends and colleagues illustrates Joni’s inimitable genius. A self-taught musician, Joni tuned her guitar to match her feelings and wrote songs that combined the influence of Dylan’s narrative with music from the big band era. The poetic intellect and the melodic structure of her songs were on a level that transcended traditional formulas.
After becoming the toast of Laurel Canyon in the sixties, and playing Carnegie hall, Joni released the album Blue in 1971. She was so emotionally drained after she completed the record that she took a long hiatus in Canada before returning to work. This was the turning point in her work, and where she became disillusioned with being the golden child of folk music. After that she experimented with rock (Court and Spark – 1974) and then started working with jazz musicians on the album Hejira.
Her collaboration with jazz legend Charles Mingus created Mingus in 1979. The record-buying public basically ignored it. Joni also got minimal attention for the Grammy she won in 1994 for Turbulent Indigo. Nevertheless, Joni has continued to put out records and to paint—her original ambition as a child.
Also mentioned in this documentary is her relationship with Graham Nash in the sixties, who appears to still maintain a place in his heart for Joni. The significance of this comes into play when Joni explains that she broke up with Nash because her grandmother was an angry, frustrated artist and Joni didn’t want to end up the same way by not pursuing her muse. As the documentary points out, much of Joni’s work is the conflict between “settling down with a man, and a desire for independence.”
This is a fascinating odyssey through the life of one of the most prolific songwriters around, and it treats Joni’s misfortunes with respect, and commands us to value the contribution this amazing artist has given to several genres of music.