When CODA director Sian Heder first considered using Joni Mitchell's 1969 classic "Both Sides, Now" in the Oscar-nominated film, she was apprehensive. "I was like, 'God, can we take on that song? I don't know,'" she said in October.
CODA centers on high-schooler Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her family. She's spent her entire life helping to maintain the family fishing business, but after joining her school's choir club and uncovering a hidden musical talent, she pursues an application to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music. But her home struggles get in the way.
In addition to the music reference, the movie's title stands for "Child of Deaf Adults" and stars several deaf actors, including Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant and Marlee Matlin. Jones is the only hearing actor in the main cast. "People think that deaf people are monolithic in terms of how they approach life, and this film bursts that myth," Matlin told the Los Angeles Times last year when the film was released.
"But to burst that myth, it had to be told as authentically as possible. And it's strange because studios clearly have the ability to greenlight a film and cast whomever they want, and there continues to be a lack of awareness that you can tell universal stories with deaf characters."
CODA has been nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture. The film won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
In the movie's climactic scene, Ruby nervously starts her Berklee audition singing "Both Sides, Now." She then notices her family slip in the back of the auditorium to watch, and she begins to sign her words as she sings them. "I discovered this song in this whole other way, and there was no other song it could be," said Heder. "CODAs live in two worlds. CODAs are constantly looking at this world from the deaf perspective and the hearing perspective, and navigating what that means."
For Jones, who spent months working with ASL teachers before shooting started, the scene represented a special moment - she described it as a "lyrical dance" - in her character's transition to adulthood and how her viewpoint shifts as she gets older.
"To be honest, ASL and music in the same film sounds like a contradiction, but to me, there are so many connections," Jones told The Rogers Review. "ASL is a very musical language. It feels melodic, rhythmic and much more expressive than spoken English."
There are parallels between Jones' character and Mitchell's growth as a singer-songwriter: Mitchell wrote "Both Sides, Now" sometime in the early '60s when she, too, was a young woman navigating her path in life. She had been reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King while on a plane. In the book, the titular character is also traveling on a plane through clouds.
Mitchell wasn't even the first singer to record her song: Judy Collins released the first version in 1967 on her Wildflowers album. It was released as a single in late 1968 and reached No. 8 in the U.S. In 1969, it won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. Mitchell finally recorded the song herself on her 1969 album, Clouds.
"This is a song that talks about sides to things," Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. "In most cases, there are both sides to things and in a lot of cases, there are more than just both. His and a hers. His and theirs. But in this song there are only two sides to things ... there's reality and I guess what you might call fantasy. There's enchantment and disenchantment, what we're taught to believe things are and what they really are."
Mitchell gave her stamp of approval of Jones' cover, calling it an "incredible performance." [ed note: Joni's socials managers actually wrote the copy being quoted here].
Jones admitted the song intimidated her at first, but she couldn't have envisioned a better metaphor for her character. "It's the perfect song for CODA because Ruby is coming to the end of her childhood, and she's at that moment in life where she feels torn between the people that she loves and also creating an identity apart from them. She has to come to terms with separating from them," she told Goggler.
"So I thought it was the absolute perfect, perfect song to choose. So as daunting as it was, I wouldn't have had it any other way."
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