Few artists have been as hard to catagorize as Joni Mitchell. Emerging initially as a sensitive introspective folk singer from Canada to becoming a singer songwriter whose musical style crosses so many boarders as to becoming nearly unclassifiable, Mitchell has stubbornly followed her own creative path undeterred by trends or fashion. What sets her apart from so many of her contemporaries is her ability to expand, grow and remain viable in an industry not known for career longevity. When you consider the fate of so many of her contemporaries, drug addiction. creative sloth, death, rehab or becoming irrelevant oldies acts in far flung Casinos in the Southwest, Mitchell has overcome most, if not all, of those land mines. She, unlike so many who were there when she started, is still here and still making music.
For those who have wondered when Mitchell would get her just due, it seems that all of those years of stubbornly refusing to be completely controlled by the "Music Biz" have paid off in terms of honors, awards and now a DVD that chronicles her life.
Joni Mitchell A life Story: Woman of Heart and Mind from Eagle Vision gives her the royal treatment. Directed by Susan Lacy, the entire 120 minute documentary is much like Mitchell's work, personal, revealing, but decidedly artistic in it's aims. This is a point not lost on Lacy who allows Mitchell to tell her amazing story from her roots in a small town in Canada to being the consort, muse and inspiration for Crosby Stills Nash, and sometimes Young.
Told in chronological order, we learn of Mitchell's childhood bout with Polio and marriage to fellow singer Chuck Mitchell, who informed her shortly after their marriage he was not willing to be the father of "another man's child." Subsequently Mitchell's out of wed lock daughter by another man was given up for adoption and relocated many years later. Such personal revelations are not treated as "nasty gossip," but like Mitchells' own music, which treats life's difficulties directly and with a minimum of sentiment or self pity, told in a matter of fact tone without being self pitying. The documentary spends little time detailing Mitchell's love life and her many entanglements, but it does not completely shy away from the fact that she was leading life on her own terms and in her own way irrespective of "conventions."
The heart of Woman of Heart in Mind are the archival footage of Mitchell performing that give this film resonance. Liberally sprinkled throughout the bio are shots of Mitchell in concert and on television accompanied by herself on guitar. It is in concert giving such personal performances that one sees the real intimacy of her art form, and how well she is able to bring such personal songs to an audience without loss of potency or power. She truly emerges as mesmerizing on stage. That is a point not lost on David Crosby, who is largely credited for discovering her. Crosby briefly, but pointedly says," I had no idea there was anyone that good."
The truth of Mitchell's rise is more complex, and far more detailed. As part of a duo with her first husband, Chuck Mitchell, they leave Canada for Detroit Michigan. Once there, they become the gold couple of the Folk singer circle, with Mitchell emerging early as the more original of the two. As performers coming to the Motor City came and went, Mitchell's compositions were gaining the attention of the likes of Tom Rush and Buffy Saint Marie. As her reputation grew, her strained marriage fell apart and Mitchell relocated to New York. It is a point in her life told in the first song from her self titled debut release, Joni Mitchell.
Going on the road, literally alone, she booked her own shows and acted as her own agent. Such little known facts of her early career, and the enormous difficulties she faced, are carefully detailed, but without a note of self pity. After years of performing, Mitchell acquires an agent, supportive management and David Crosby's help in insuring that her music not be retrofitted to fit current styles when she hits the studios. From that point onward, Mitchell was in total and complete control of her musical odyssey.
While she was closely associated with Crosby Stills Nash and Young, it is not long before Mitchell creatively moves towards a hybrid of Folk, Jazz, Rock and Roll and Country and Western that sends her up the charts with such anthems as "Woodstock." Contrary to the myth that Mitchell attended that ultimate 60's concert in New York State, she was slated to appear, but was told not to for fear of losing an important television appearance on David Cavot's talk show. Lacy includes Mitchell on the show listening and putting on a convincing stiff upper lip as the CSN and Y excitedly talk about the atmosphere of Woodstock as Mitchell stoically listens. To hear Mitchell comment on the footage adds yet another personal layer to a life that is already rich and enduring.
The documentary contains vintage photos of Mitchell as a young girl and continues in chronological order as she started to work with such jazz titans as Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herby Hancock and Pat Metheny. While she maintained close ties to CSN and Y throughout her career, her musical identity was decidedly separate from theirs. So much so that when she hit the road to support the chart topping "Court and Spark," she toured with Tom Scott's L.A. Express. The resulting in concert release, Miles of Aisles, had a decidedly jazz feel.
Offering up a great deal of personal information, and some informative revelations from Mitchell herself, Woman of Heart and Mind is a compelling, exciting voyage through a life filled with amazing highs, terrifying lows and exhilarating inventive music. For Mitchell fans, this maybe an essential collectible. For those new to Mitchell, and those who are creative, this bio picture serves as an excellent primer on how to maintain artistic integrity without compromising your creativity in an essentially crass overly commercialized industry. Kudos to Director Lacy for preserving the legacy of Joni Mitchell without turning it into a lurid "Inside the Music" gossip fest. Told with attention to detail and her artisty, the DVD also includes extras, promos and out takes that are just as solid as the 120 documentary.