About midway through Trafalgar Releasing's film of the Music Center's concert in honor of Joni Mitchell's 75th birthday, a message from Peter Gabriel is projected onto a large screen over the performance stage in which Gabriel offer this description among many other laudatory remarks about Joni and her music: "...melodies that would sparkle like jewels on a trampoline, jumping all around, and I pity the poor bastards that have to try and sing them in front of you tonight".
At the beginning of the film are shots of the exterior of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and its grand chandelier lit lobby, as various performers begin to arrive. Although they don't seem quite as pitiably intimidated by their task of doing proper justice to the music of the great artist they have come to honor as Gabriel's message suggests, as voice overs of a few of these performers describing their feelings about their personal connections to Joni's music are heard, there is a sense of anticipatory excitement and a feeling that all energies, nervous or otherwise, are being channeled into one purposeful, sharp focus. Every performer, from the headliners to the musicians who will back them up has accepted a difficult challenge and is prepared to give their ultimate best to capture those jumping jewels and present them with fresh brilliance to the woman who created them.
In one particular shot, a seated figure, just out of the camera's focus, is seen wrapped in a bright red garment, a presence in the background, presiding. A few moments later, we see Joni Mitchell, wearing a bright red Issey Miyaki designed gown and wearing a broad-brimmed hat being escorted into the Music Center, smiling and acknowledging the waves of love pouring out from the adoring crowd. We see glimpses of the audience with the recognizable face of Tom Hanks carefully placed in one shot.
Drummer Brian Blade served as co-musical director for 'Joni 75' along with pianist and fellow Brian Blade Fellowship band member, Jon Cowherd. Blade is more that qualified for the task as he has recorded several times with Joni Mitchell and toured with her in 1998. He committed himself to taking the utmost care to create arrangements that would fit each individual performer while keeping the musical core of each song true to Mitchell's original conceptions.
No filmed record of a musical performance can replicate the experience that an audience actually gets from attending the event. However, Trafalgar Releasing manages to provide intimate glimpses of the production that an audience member would not be able to see. Each of the musicians is given a spotlight at one point or another of the film. Although the headliners are the chief focus with close-up and medium shots that give intimate looks at their stellar deliveries, the musicians are also given enough screen time to stress their importance in bringing the ingenious structures of Joni Mitchell's music to life.
Norah Jones is the first performer to take the stage and she sings the title song from Joni's best selling album 'Court and Spark' to a piano accompaniment that sounds like a note for note replication of Joni Mitchell's playing on the original recorded track. The same can be said for the piano accompaniment to Rufus Wainwright's emotive rendition of 'Blue'. Other performances feature arrangements that contain most of the elements of the originals as recorded by Mitchell with additions or modifications made to fit the instruments in the ensemble.
Close ups of Diana Krall's fingers give an awe inspiring view of Krall's virtuoso ability to explore notes and and chords that push her own slowly meditative, jazzy arrangement of the song, 'For the Roses' to the limit of its structure without straying out of the song's emotional bounds. Her masterful piano playing provides the accompaniment that underlies her distinctively husky vocalizations. The camera is mainly concerned with her singing and playing during the song and her later rendition of 'Amelia' from 1976's 'Hejira'. But it frequently cuts to Christopher Thomas who plays upright bass during both songs, clearly showing the rapport between the two that enhances the performances of both musicians. Diana Krall is a well-known and critically acclaimed artist in the jazz world.
Greg Leisz, another musician who has toured with Joni Mitchell, plays both electric and pedal steel guitar and is given frequent screen time, especially while playing pedal steel, an instrument that sounds like neither Hawaiian nor Country and Western music under Leisz's carefully applied fingerings. The sound permeates much of the music and is essential to most of the arrangements that Blade and Cowherd have created.
The camera also picks up images of Graham Nash as he watches from the wings or moves about backstage during James Taylor's performance of 'Woodstock', the song that Nash along with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young turned into a hit with their rock and roll flavored version. Although Taylor's rendition, with soulfully soaring vocal backing from Seal, is more akin to the CSNY version, the song begins with the camera on trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire as he plays the notes of what was the wordless vocal coda of Joni Mitchell's original reverential treatment of the song from her 1970 album, 'Ladies of the Canyon'.
The roster of performers for Joni 75 encompasses a broad spectrum of musicians. It is unlikely that you will find many of their names in current Billboard Top 100 lists. But chances are, most of the present day music loving public have heard their names and are familiar with their work. Several have had long and successful careers.
Emmylou Harris had her greatest success on Billboard's Hot Country Songs charts although her choice of recorded material has been highly eclectic over the years and her 1995 album 'Wrecking Ball' produced by Daniel Lanois put her completely out of the C&W genre. She is now viewed by many as an Americana artist. After her humorous introduction, saying she is going to lighten things up by singing "a song about women who were enslaved in convents back in Ireland" she proceeds to accompany herself on guitar, giving an affecting performance of 'The Magdalene Laundries' from Mitchell's Grammy Award winning 1994 album, 'Turbulent Indigo'. Her pathos is tinged with righteous anger as she sings 'Why do they call this heartless place Our Lady of Charity?' while Ambrose Akinmusire's trumpet provides a poignant underscoring of the song's haunting melody.
Glen Hansard is an Irish singer and songwriter, best known for his performance in the critically acclaimed 2007 Irish film 'Once'. He has appeared in two other notable Joni Mitchell tributes, 'Joni's Jazz' at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011 and 'Joni: A Portrait in Song' at Massey Hall in Toronto in 2013 in honor of Joni's 70th birthday. He plays acoustic guitar with passionately sung deliveries of 'Coyote' and 'The Boho Zone'. 'Coyote' from the 1976 album 'Hejira' features the playing of special guest violinist Scarlet Rivera who first came to prominence in the music world when she played on Bob Dylan's 1976 album 'Desire'. The instrumentation for 'The Boho Dance' is a close recreation of Joni's original recording on her 1975 album 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns'.
Norah Jones returns, playing and singing her own skillfully wrought and executed piano arrangement of 'Borderline', another song from 1994's acoustic guitar based album, 'Turbulent Indigo'.
Los Lobos is a rock band from East Los Angeles that plays an eclectic blend of music. They accompany Marisol Hernandez aka La Marisoul, the lead singer of the Mexican American band La Santa Cecilia in a lively rendition of 'Dreamland' from 1977's 'Don Juan's Reckless Daughter'. Percussionist/guitarist Louie Perez begins scraping the teeth of a set of donkey jaws with a drum stick as LaMarisoul moves with the rhythm he creates and eventually begins to sing 'It's a long, long way from East L.A.' taking a slight liberty with Joni's lyric.
Wearing a full-skirted blue print dress cinched with a wide patent leather pink belt, a colorful headband running across her curly hair and a pair of cats-eye glasses, she is a festive sight and brings a decidedly party time atmosphere to the proceedings. Percussive sounds are heard and the camera cuts to a close up of feet dancing on a wooden platform, becoming a sort of drum. There is a shot of Joni seated in the audience who smiles in delight at what she is seeing and hearing. The feet belong to Xochi Flores who is dancing and playing a tarima, a wooden platform made specifically for dancers to stomp out rhythms during el fandango, part of son jarocho, a musical tradition that originated in the rural communities of Veracruz in Mexico.
Chaka Khan, who had sung backup on Joni Mitchell's original recording of 'Dreamland', comes out on stage and begins to sing some improvised riffs while LaMarisoul launches into some Spanish improvisations of her own. Xochi Flores's mentor and teacher in the dancing percussion art of zapateado, Cesar Castro is also onstage with Los Lobos playing a small guitar known as a jarana which is another musical element of el fandango. Program percussionist Jeff Haynes gets plenty of screen time as well during the latin inflected rhythms of 'Dreamland'.
Chaka Khan is a long time friend of Joni Mitchell's and is renowned for her recordings with her band Rufus of funk and soul inflected music. She injects her fierce energy into 'Help Me', another song from 1974's 'Court and Spark' while grooving on the rhythms of Brian Blade's drumming with Seal a particular standout as he and Rufus Wainwright provide vocal backing. Joni can be seen clapping her hands over her head at the end of Chaka's dynamic performance.
Kris Kristofferson, the oldest of the headliners at the the age of 82 is joined on stage by Brandi Carlile who probably comes in as the youngest member of the group. Carlile seems to be gently prompting Kristofferson with the lyrics to the classic 'A Case of You' from Joni's iconic 1971 'Blue' album and she joins him, taking the songs more range challenging high notes leading into the choruses.
Kristofferson leaves the stage to be seated on a couch that seems to be partially visible to the audience where various performers can be seen from time to time, as they relax between their sets and observe their fellow musicians onstage. Emmylou Harris seems to be watching the entire show from this vantage point, a veteran performer, absorbed by the music.
Brandi Carlile comes back to the stage and reveals that Kris has told her he doesn't remember much but he remembers that Joni was always absolutely perfect. Carlile also mentions Kris Kristofferson's oft-quoted remark upon first hearing the 'Blue' album, 'Oh Joni, save something for yourself!' Brandi thanks Joni for not saving something for herself and providing inspiration for musicians that followed her to have the courage to open themselves up and reveal their deepest feelings. She then delivers a passionately emphatic version of 'Down To You', another song from 'Court and Spark' which contains an amazingly executed approximation of the original recording's instrumental interlude. One could almost swear that there is a string quartet onstage as Cowherd's piano, Leisz's pedal steel, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Bob Sheppard on flute play the delicately orchestrated arrangement that spans the song's bridge and its final verse. At the end of her performance, Carlile walks back to Kris Kristofferson who gives her an affectionate, appreciative hug before she sits down beside him.
Rufus Wainwright is the son of the late singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, another singer/songwriter both of whom wrote numerous songs, many of which have been covered by other artists. He is also the husband of Jorn Weisbrodt who is the Artistic Producer for the Music Center and, along with Danny Kapilian, the show's music producer, the chief creative force behind Joni 75. Rufus makes sure that his spouse gets his due credit before performing another selection from the 'Blue' album, 'All I Want'. The original recording of 'All I Want' features Joni Mitchell accompanying herself on Appalachian dulcimer with James Taylor adding accents with his acoustic guitar. The ensemble reconstructs the dulcimer's lively accents with Akinmusire playing trumpet and Bob Sheppard showing his versatility on soprano saxophone.
James Taylor has had a long and highly successful career in the music business, beginning in the early 1960s. As a songwriter and a fine singer, he has a long string of hit records to his credit and continues to tour and record. He is also a long time friend and and admirer of Joni Mitchell. His rendition of the song 'River' which he recorded for a Christmas album in 2006, seems to be emblematic of the lyric from Joni's song 'For the Roses' as he seems to, in Joni's words, 'pour your simple sorrow to the sound hole and your knee'. His eyes seem to be either shut or studying his guitar as he plays his own version of another classic song from Mitchell's 'Blue' album. Joni waves in acknowledgment at the end of his performance.
But perhaps the most touching performance of the evening comes from Graham Nash who prefaces it by saying that "every song sung here tonight was written by Joni Mitchell - except this one." He then sings 'Our House' the song that he wrote for Joni when he was 27 years old and she was 26. Nash is in especially good voice and doesn't sound too far off from his 27 year old self as he sings the lyrics that describe a simple evening spent with Joni in domestic bliss. He gets the audience to sing the final chorus, finishes the song, takes his bows and leaves the stage with little fanfare. A shot of Joni Mitchell in the audience shows her seemingly lost in her thoughts and memories.
However, the standout performance of the night has to be Seal's version of Joni's most famous and most covered song 'Both Sides Now'. Seal had a megahit in 1995 when his song 'Kiss From a Rose' was featured on the soundtrack of the film 'Batman Forever'. His soulful vocalizations and finely crafted songs have been the foundation of a long and successful music career. Somewhere in the middle of the Joni 75 program, he comes to the stage and sings a heartfelt, reflective but powerful version of Joni's great classic, based on an orchestral arrangement created by Vince Mendoza for Joni's own revisiting of the song on her 2000 album also titled 'Both Sides Now'. His tall slender body moves with the music as he gestures and completely owns the material, infusing it with a melancholy and reflective wisdom. The audience is on its feet as he finishes the song and Joni can be seen standing as well and applauding enthusiastically.
Seal’s second performance of the evening is, in some ways, even more astounding than his masterful delivery of ‘Both Sides Now’. Taken from the ‘Hejira’ album, ‘A Strange Boy’ is a much less well-known, some might say obscure song. A casual listener might find the song to be musically simplistic or repetitious. But for anyone who listens closely with any discernment, it becomes evident that such a surface judgment would be completely wrong-headed. The song has subtle but complex melodic and rhythmic shifts coupled with a lyric that is rich in its imagery and contains, to put it in plain spoken English, a lot of words. As Seal sings the first line of the song ‘A strange boy is weaving a course of grace and havoc on a yellow skateboard through mid-day sidewalk traffic’ he mimics the outstretched arms of a skateboarder. It is an apt metaphor for his performance as he maintains his balance and navigates a melody that does not follow a verse chorus verse structure but, like a skateboarder, seems to weave through a variety of verses and bridges, none of which sounds exactly the same as anything that went before. He maintains that balance, carrying himself with a breath taking agility and an emotional resonance that matches the song perfectly.
'The Music Center Presents Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration' gives frequent glimpses of the images that are being projected on the large screen above the stage which consist of photographs, many shot by photographer Norman Seeff, some of Joni Mitchell's paintings and a clip from Eagle Rock Entertainment's release 'Both Sides Now - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970'. Towards the end of this film clip the camera angle catches a glimpse of a pair of ice skates tied together and hanging over a pole on the left hand side of the stage which invite associations with the song 'River' or with the cover and content of the 'Hejira' album or maybe with thoughts of a childhood spent on the Canadian prairie, where Joni grew up, with its long cold winters.
There are also snippets of the audio tapes that Malka Marom recorded of her three long interviews with Joni that became Malka's book 'Joni Mitchell in Her Own Words'. These visual and audio documents combined with the meticulous musical arrangements and the passionate commitment of every performer make up a fine cinematic representation of an extraordinary event. The care, respect and love for Joni Mitchell that went into this concert are clearly evident here.
Joni's presence at this event contributes tremendously to its significance in view of the fact that she is still recovering from a debilitating brain aneurysm that nearly took her life in 2015 and has only recently regained the ability to walk. To see her standing and walking, albeit with the help of two assistants and the support of a cane, was one more reason to celebrate the talent, courage and determination of one of the world's greatest living songwriters.
The film winds up when Rufus Wainwright begins to sing another of Mitchell's most famous songs, the bouncy, ecologically themed 'Big Yellow Taxi' There is a montage of the rest of the performers mixing backstage before joining in the singing, the lighting of a 75th birthday candle and a large cake being carried out on to the stage. Joni is seated as the cake is presented to her and she blows out the candle and smiles. We see her standing again as she waves to the crowd from the stage and, although we don't hear her words, she is clearly saying thank you as she waves.
For those of us Joni Mitchell fans who were unable to be at this event, Trafalgar's film beautifully captures the event and gives enough up close and behind the scenes looks to at least partially compensate for missing this extraordinary evening of music, celebration and tribute. If you love the music of Joni Mitchell, this film will be a more than worthy addition to your video library.
The Music Center Presents Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration is screening in cinemas across North America for one night only, on February 7, 2019, courtesy of Trafalgar Releasing. You can find the screening nearest you and purchase tickets at Joni75.com.
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