Inside the TNT tribute to Joni Mitchell. Ken Tucker says the innovative singer-songwriter is poorly served by safe renditions
Let me reiterate an axiom that always rankles readers but is nonetheless true: Very often, a critic knows better than an artist what the artist's best work may be. An artist's job is to pursue his or her muse, to nurture it, to reign it in or let it loose as he or she sees fit. The critic's job is to evaluate how well the artist succeeded or failed in creating useful or entertaining or groundbreaking (and sometimes all three) work. Critical distance is the phrase, I believe.
It's a quality of which Joni Mitchell, whom I otherwise consider an exemplary artist, does not possess much. And to watch and listen to TNT's "All Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell" special that aired this past Sunday (and will be repeated Wednesday night at 12:30 a.m.), neither do many of her well-meaning colleagues.
To take Mitchell herself first: She's often said in interviews that her best work began with such jazz-influenced works as "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" (1975) on through "Mingus" (1979) and beyond. But in a good example of mass taste being the best taste, I and millions of other record buyers would say that earlier Mitchell works, particularly the perfect "Blue" (1971) and "For the Roses" (1972) represent the peak of her originality and accessibility.
But Mitchell pursues her jazzbo instincts on her latest CD, "Both Sides Now," offering lugubrious versions of other songwriters' prerock pop standards and distends and mars two of her own tunes, the title one (no great loss, as far as I'm concerned) and "A Case of You" (a ridiculous travesty).
As for the TV special saluting her, it was characterized by safe, mimicking versions of her best-known tunes by musicians like Mary Chapin Carpenter, James Taylor, Shawn Colvin, and the already-mannered-beyond-rescue jazz pianist-vocalist Diana Krall.
Only two performances stood out. Elton John gave a lovely, meticulous yet passionate rendering of "Free Man in Paris." And best by a mile was Cyndi Lauper, who performed an extraordinary, heart-stopping version of "Carey," from "Blue." Lauper built on the pulsing beat -- what Mitchell has called in another song "the jungle line" -- that lies hidden in Mitchell's version of her song, turning "Carey" into a sensuous song of seduction. It's hard to tell given the special's choppy editing, but it looked to me as if Lauper was the only saluting artist whose performance received a standing ovation -- and it deserved it.
Lauper, like any good artist, made "Carey" her own. May Mitchell go on to create more music as worthy of being stolen away from her so brilliantly.