PBS could not have made a better choice when they decided to honor Joni Mitchell with a “Great Performances” documentary celebrating her vast and varied career. The subsequent DVD release of the program entitled “Woman of Heart and Mind” reaches from the 1960s Greenwich village folk scene all the way into the next century. The Canadian-born singer/songwriter has worn many hats and some would even say disguises through the decades.
Heavily lauded as the queen of the folk scene, Mitchell went on to record albums that also embraced jazz, rock and world music. Constantly changing, growing and exploring she was always the consummate artist who refused to be defined by the popular trends of the day.
Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson) started her journey on the lonely plains of Saskatchewan. As a young girl, her greatest desire was to be an artist. At nine years of age, the singer contracted polio and subsequently spent a lot of time alone healing. While other children were running and playing, Mitchell began to develop the introspective part of her personality that would serve her well in the future.
Continuing on her path as a painter, Mitchell attended art college and tasted personal freedom for the first time. Unfortunately, with that freedom came an out of wedlock pregnancy. The struggling artist was soon left alone with a baby daughter. Mitchell put the girl in foster care while she tried to make ends meet. Rescue seemed to appear in the person of folk singer Chuck Mitchell.
He and the young Joni Anderson became fast friends and a marriage proposal soon followed. Recognizing his wife’s vocal talents, Chuck Mitchell soon had them playing gigs in Detroit, where they rose to prominence as the local “golden couple”. What wasn’t obvious to their adoring fans though was that Joni was miserable. Chuck Mitchell had made it clear that he had no interest in raising her daughter and for all intents, held his young wife hostage controlling their finances and every aspect of their burgeoning musical career.
The marriage soon broke up and Joni Mitchell carried on as a solo act. She was alone again and free to pursue music, which was becoming an incredibly important part of her life. The price she would pay for her art would be high though. Still struggling, the singer relinquished her paternal rights and allowed her young daughter to be adopted. The lost child would continue to haunt her life and work for years to come.
Mitchell soon landed in Greenwich Village, the musical hot spot of the 60s. She quickly began to make a name for herself, but more as a songwriter than a singer. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins and Tom Rush, already popular folkies, were soon recording Joni Mitchell songs such as “Both Sides Now” (which would become a smash for Judy Collins) and “The Circle Game”. A young agent by the name of David Geffen (yes – THE David Geffen) signed the young singer. Singer David Crosby came on board to produce her first album, Song to a Seagull. His role as he described it was to make sure nothing made it on the album except Mitchell’s pure, haunting vocals and extraordinary guitar playing.
The songbird’s success led her to Los Angeles area where she fit in perfectly with the other artists migrating by the bus loads to the city’s canyons – particularly Laurel Canyon. Joni Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon days would also be defined by her romance with Graham Nash of super group Crosby, Stills & Nash. Theirs was a full-fledged love affair that would end due to Mitchell’s fear that marriage would impede her chances to reach her full potential as an artist. The intensity of the relationship and its subsequent breakup were chronicled on the intensely personal and now legendary album “Blue”.
As the days of folk music began to wane, Joni Mitchell soldiered on. Her interests in all genres of music soon led her to record a jazz album “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter”. The album was not well-received. Critics and folk fans alike were confused by the singer’s new direction. The album did get the attention though of jazz great Charles Mingus who was nearing the end of his life. He contacted Joni Mitchell about making his last album with her. Against the advise of her managers, she jumped at the idea. The result of the partnership was a challenging yet intriguing album entitled “Mingus”.
With the 1980s came rock ‘n’ roll and Joni Mitchell soon showed she was eager to explore that genre as well. A string of albums followed in conjunction with the new man in her life, producer/player Larry Klein, who the singer would eventually marry. Everything seemed perfect in Mitchell’s life but there was still something missing. She soon began a search for her lost daughter. The young woman was soon found and mother and daughter were happily reunited. One of the most heartfelt aspects of the documentary is the footage of Mitchell and her look-alike daughter spending time together.
As Mitchell puts the finishing touches and what she says is her final album, the singer’s career and life seem to have come full circle. While she may now spend her days pursuing her original love of painting, Joni Mitchell, the singer/songwriter has left an incredible wealth of material that is not only a portrait of a woman of heart and mind, but also of the changing face of music throughout the last four decades.
The documentary does an incredible job of combining rare performance e and television footage with comments from Mitchell herself and other luminaries such as David Crosby and Graham Nash. It’s a first-rate production for a first-class artist!