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Joni Mitchell Documentary Balances Music and Emotion Print-ready version

by Larry Aydlette
Cox News Service
April 2, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- She's an eloquent commentator on the fickle byways of the human heart. She's a restless musical innovator, skipping blithely from folk to rock to jazz. She's a poet and she's a painter.

And she's a rebel.

Joni Mitchell is one of the few modern musicians who can truly wear the mantle of artist.

That makes "Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind," an insightful PBS documentary airing Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KUED Channel 7, a must-see for Joni junkies and for casual observers of rock's back-to-the-garden era.

The 90-minute film traces Mitchell's life from an introspective, polio-scarred childhood in frozen Canada through her early folk days in America, where she attracted attention with songs such as "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game."

And it pays special attention to her arrival among the '60s rock gentry in Southern California, where she began creating the haunting, deeply personal albums that formed her reputation: "Blue," "For the Roses," "Court and Spark" and "Hejira."

Writer-director Susan Lacy's documentary is remarkable on several counts. It blends 35 songs and never-before-seen footage into a vibrant whole. The archival material is incredible: early still photos, concert and TV clips, and grainy home movies of the rockers who congregated in L.A.'s fabled Laurel Canyon, from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to Mama Cass Elliott.

And it illuminates the event that sparked Mitchell's uniquely personal songwriting -- her pregnancy at age 19, when she gave up her daughter for adoption to avoid family scandal. She married musician Chuck Mitchell, who she hoped would help her get the child back and raise her.

When he wouldn't, Mitchell says she felt trapped and "disturbed," pouring her feelings into songs of rue and reflection that belied her youth.

"Bad fortune changed the course of my destiny," Mitchell admits. "I became a musician."

Unlike many standard rock biographies, the film deftly balances music and melodrama. While it covers Graham Nash and Mitchell's frank recollection of their ill-fated love affair, it also touches on Mitchell's "weird" guitar tunings and her trilling, unmistakable soprano.

Mitchell concedes she has been dogged by depression, but she calls it "the sand that makes the pearl. Most of my best work came out of it."

And there's a remarkable happy ending: Mitchell reunited years later with her daughter -- and discovered she had two grandchildren.

Lacy's documentary leaves a strong impression that Mitchell, though always creative, might never reach the same poetic heights now that her personal life is whole again. While she made intriguing albums through the '80s and early '90s, she's been recently recording her old works in symphonic settings, with mixed results.

The film also has some of the standard flaws associated with shoehorning a rich odyssey into 90 minutes. It could have dug deeper into Mitchell's tangled personal life, her attraction to painting and, most of all, her prickly personality.

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Added to Library on April 4, 2003. (3352)

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