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Self-promotion taints Joni Mitchell video Print-ready version

by Ben Wener
The Orange County Register
May 4, 1999

Live performances from the reclusive Joni Mitchell are so rare that when they appear you can almost be blinded by anticipation and fawning admiration. As with Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, two legends equal (in their own ways) to the great Canadian poet-folk-rocker, absence can be a downfall - it may make the heart grow fonder, but it makes the mind think infallibility.

None of those three performers is perfect, of course, least of all the masterful, hugely influential Mitchell, whose always fascinating career has had more peaks and valleys than a trip through the Sierras. Still, the instinct is to rave about her new concert video, "Painting With Words and Music" (Eagle Rock, $19.95 for video, $24.95 for DVD), and why not? It's generous on past glories, it's impeccably shot (like a PBS version of "MTV Unplugged") by director Joan Tosoni, and her sound - like no other in popular music - is extraordinary.

That's the way producer John Brunton, in a shameless introduction to the concert, likes to describe virtually everything involving Joni - and it's where you sense problems creeping in. Overcome by his own involvement, Brunton finishes his spiel by declaring this will be (mixed metaphor aside) "a taste of Joni Mitchell as you've never seen before."

Indeed, it is, but it's a side to her that leaves a sour aftertaste: Joni the Self-Aggrandizer.

That's not just because the singer is surrounded by her own paintings while performing for a select group of friends seated on couches around a circular stage in a Burbank studio - even though the power of those paintings is really kept locked.

Occasionally images are edited into the middle of songs, as if for emphasis, even exclamation; typically, they just break the mood.

Nor is it Joni's kooky new-age mumbo-jumbo to explain that circular stage. It's a medicine wheel, you see, which leads to this spiritual alchemy: "North, I know; east, I see; south, I feel; west, I sense." And then: "North is the white race, the body;east is the yellow race, the mind; south is the black race, the soul; west is the red race, the spirit."

Say what? As if the world were that easily compartmentalized and understood, let alone segregated. (And this coming from Joni Mitchell?) There's more. There's Rosanna Arquette to give the performer a Joni-is-God introduction. There's Graham Nash, stepping out of the shadows to belatedly deliver Joni's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame statuette to her.

It all becomes quite off-putting and detracts from what is an otherwise marvelous performance. And, sadly, Joni is at least partly to blame for the self- congratulatory atmosphere, given her credit as "editorial editor."

As such, she clearly could have insisted Nash's tribute be excised, since it interrupts a rather telling anecdote about the writing and aftermath of "Woodstock." She also could have insisted that Tosoni play up the artwork more, spending more time explaining its importance to the artist - especially given Joni's remarks (about what she sees as Socratic artistic fascism and a reminiscence of debating artistry with Georgia O'Keeffe) before a version of "Sex Kills."

Still, do such back-patting moments ruin this? Hardly. There are a few missteps that either don't work as well as they should (a cover of Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" is too goofy for such serious proceedings, though a take on Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" is riveting) and some songs point out the odd leanness of Joni's recent work ("Sex Kills" is too simplistically cautionary, even compared with "Big Yellow Taxi" here, and "Face Lift" is just plain pandering).

But the bulk of the performance is mesmerizing, thanks in part to the jazz sensibilities of her outstanding band (including drummer Brian Blade, guitarist Greg Liesz, Mark Isham on trumpet and Joni's ex-husband Larry Klein on bass). Dexterous and intuitive, they bring a smoky, Sting-ish quality to Joni's work, helping her open up already expansive pieces for new nuances and shadings.

And then there's the unmistakable sound of Joni's guitar, so captivating it can keep you spellbound for hours. It's gripping on "Just Like This Train," compassionate on "The Magdalene Laundries," murky and mysterious on "Hejira," and hopeful but parental - and even mournful - on "Woodstock."

That's why, above all, "Painting With Words and Music" should be watched again and again. In fact, it's the sort of effort that surely will improve the more you view it. Not only will the complexities of Joni's music make more sense, but you'll know what parts to skip over.

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Added to Library on April 23, 2002. (2278)

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