Joni Mitchell is subject of PBS special

by Judith Gillies
Washington Post
April 2, 2003

Music is the focus of the "American Masters" film on Joni Mitchell -- songwriter, singer, painter and poet.

"We use her songs as part of the narrative," said Susan Lacy, who produced, directed and wrote the documentary. "The lyrics are very much a part of the narrative.

"I try in all of our films to have a style that is appropriate to the subject," Lacy said. "For this film, I went for a lyrical, impressionistic and poetic style."

"Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind" will have its U.S. premiere today on PBS as part of the "American Masters" series.

Mitchell was born in Canada but qualifies as an "American Master" because the series is about America's native-born and adopted artists, said Lacy, who also is creator and executive producer of the PBS series.

"She has lived [in the United States) since the '60s and made her life and career here," Lacy said. Mitchell maintains homes in British Columbia and California -- "so she's a binational," Lacy said.

"This film is about Joni Mitchell's musical journey and how the events of her life affected that journey and how the music enlightens us about her life," Lacy said. "It's not a celebrity profile but a musical biography. "

The documentary features about 35 of Mitchell's songs, such as "Both Sides Now," "Blue," "Circle Game" and "Hejira."

The 90-minute documentary features 35 of Mitchell's songs and several unreleased works and performances -- such as Mitchell singing "Blue" during a 1974 concert in London -- that have not been broadcast in the United States.

The majority of the performance footage is new, Lacy said, and includes home movies of performers David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Graham Nash and Mitchell shot by Nash in the late 1960s.

Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, on Nov. 7, 1943, she originally wanted to be a painter. She had taken some piano lessons as a child, but is essentially self-taught on piano and guitar.

She went to Alberta College of Art in Calgary in 1963. Although she sometimes sang in coffeehouses, she says, "the idea of being a recorded artist was not anywhere in my mind."

She has released 21 albums and has written about 175 songs, some in collaboration. She developed her own style, inventing new ways to tune her guitar and playing "weird chords."

"For years, everybody said, 'Joni's weird chords, Joni's weird chords,' " she says in the film. "And I thought, 'How can there be a weird chord?' . . . They feel like my feelings."

Mitchell has been true to herself, Lacy said. "She became enormously popular but that wasn't her aim, that's not the most important thing about her. She represented the genuine artist, exploring musical territory because she wanted to, to make her experience a universal experience."

There were times when she dropped out of sight; in the film she talks about a year when she moved to the Canadian back bush, turning to nature.

But "depression can be the sand that makes the pearl. Most of my best work came out of it."

She also talks about being reunited with her daughter in 1997 and there is footage of them with her two grandchildren.

"I don't think Joni's career is any way over because she constantly is expanding her music," said Lacy.

"But there is some sort of completion in her life in reuniting with her daughter and grandchildren. Mother and daughter finding each other is a fairy-tale ending."

In the film, Mitchell says she continually switches between music and painting, including artwork for her albums. "Any time I make a record, it's followed by a painting period. It's good crop rotation."

"For years, everybody said, 'Joni's weird chords, Joni's weird chords,'" she says in the film. "And I thought, 'How can there be a weird chord?' ... They feel like my feelings."

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