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Woman Of Heart And Mind is a 2003 documentary film about the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and was directed by Susan Lacy. The film traces the life of the cult singer back to her childhood in frosty snow capped Canada and through to her emergence on the American music scene in the late sixties before looking at some of her later work and attempts to branch out somewhat away from her summer meadow angsty acoustic folk music. The film is quite artistic and well composed and crammed with rare photographs and enjoyable archive of the singer performing and appearing on television shows. Joni Mitchell tells her own story in past and present interviews while there are also the usual array of documentary talking heads sharing their own memories and thoughts about the star. Most of the talking heads are Joni Mitchell's peers and were around when she first became famous so I must admit I hadn't heard of all of them by any means. A more contemporary perspective on Joni Mitchell from some of the (many) younger artists she has influenced might have been nice but I don't think that's a major complaint and doesn't detract from the film too much. She was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Canada and there are many rare photographs and also some home family films of her Saskatchewan childhood so one can see how this backdrop must have had a profound affect on her art and inspired that strange sense of detachment in her you get from her best songs where she seems to exist in her own world. There are many snatches of film and archive of her in concert throughout the documentary and the songs that feature include The Circle Game, Just Like Me, Marcie, Cactus Tree, Chelsea Morning, Woodstock, My Old Man, Blue, A Case of You, You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio, Raised on Robbery, The Same Situation, Amelia, Hejira, Goodbye Porkpie Hat, Wild Things Run Fast, Underneath the Streetlights, Come in from the Cold, and Dog Eat Dog.
One of the key events of her life is covered here when she suffers from Polio as a child and learns to play the guitar while recovering in hospital. She also apparently starts smoking at the age of nine, something which has a big effect on her voice when she is much older and means there comes a point when she just can't sing those early folk songs the way she used to. She began to attract attention when she was still a teenager and performing in small shows in Toronto. Not only did she write and perform her own material, but her compositions were intricate and affecting and her voice was sublime. Her lyrics were very introspective and thoughtful and painted some wonderful pictures with their imagery. The film is interesting I think because it touches on the fact that her very early years are somewhat vague (Joni Mitchell does do interviews and isn't Greta Garbo but she's not the most forensically analysed or profiled singer and so has retained some sense of mystery) and attempts to plug some of the gaps. She moved to New York and then Los Angeles and soon became something of a sensation in the grass roots music circles she moved in. What is apparent here is that despite her delicate and flowery appearance, Joni Mitchell was an old trooper at a young age and willing to work hard to get a break. She had no manager or agent for a while and would travel alone to shows having to do everything for herself. When (I think it was Clouds) one of her earlier albums was a major success she moved back to Canada and lived in a remote area alone with no electricity for a while just to escape from the bubble of fame and the music business.
There's a fair about her private life and how some of the sadness fed into her songs. She had a failed early marriage and a child who was born out of wedlock and fostered before they were reunited. She was also very associated with Crosby, Stills and Nash and David Crosby (her produced some of her early albums) features as one of the talking heads and is always interesting as he remembers those days and working with Joni Mitchell when she first attained some measure of fame. He says that he had no idea anyone was that good when he started working with her. There is a lot of material of Joni Mitchell in concert through the decades too and this is always enjoyable - especially the young hippy flower power Joni Mitchell and her acoustic guitar. Not such a huge fan of her later work when her voice became huskier and she moved into jazz and tried to reinvent herself as a torch singer. You do though get some interesting ruminations on these changes and come to understand why she has a reputation of being an independent character who has never been too thrilled at the thought of people shoving her into one single box and expecting her to stay there. The documentary shows us that she was willing to experiment and make records that we might not expect. How much of this was pragmatism from the changes in her voice and the advancing years and how much was planned is open to question but it's clear that she has never been guided by strictly commercial concerns or what people might expect of her. She is also of course a great survivor. While many from her generation were undone by drugs or were plunged into obscurity, Joni Mitchell has always been around and continued to make records in her own little Joni Mitchell world.
I think the documentary makes a good case for being (despite all the acclaim) a somewhat unappreciated artist in a strange way. She made near perfect albums like Blue, Clouds, and Hejira and yet is probably not as famous or well known as she should be with that back catalogue. Lesser talents have achieved more fame with a far less impressive body of work. I also enjoyed the documentary for the glimpse it affords us at the many paintings she has done over the years. Painting seems to have been as much of a passion as singing for Joni Mitchell and they fit in nicely with the general arty ambience of the film. There are many fascinating little stories and incidents in the film that are fun to revisit and here about. Like the fact that Joni Mitchell seemed to be born for Woodstock but by a quirk of fate never actually attended the event. She was going to go but at the last minute her manager booked her on The Dick Cavett Show (Cavett had a very famous American chat show in the seventies and everyone from Norman Mailer to Groucho Marx to Woody Allen appeared as guests because it was considered somewhat hip and irreverent and got you a wide audience) and she had to appear on that instead. Joni Mitchell was rather mortified when he heard how wonderful Woodstock had been and realised she'd missed out on a seminal event and even wrote a song about the festival, wistfully wishing she had been there in person. There are many little clips of Joni Mitchell on various television shows too in the film and it's fun to trawl through these.
The film is two hours in duration and does skip over a few albums and have to pick and choose what to cover at times but I think the balance is generally good. You get a sense of where she came from, the early years, fame, moving in new directions, and also the private person and some of the things that happened to her in her personal life and seeped into her (often sad) music. What the film does do though is give one a satisfying impression of a genuine talent who has been hugely influential and will probably never be bettered in the sphere she made her own for a time in the late sixties and early seventies. Woman Of Heart And Mind is an interesting and very watchable film that I don't think you even need to be a huge fan of Joni Mitchell to enjoy (I think the best thing about documentaries is that they make you watch a film about something or a person that you might not necessarily have been interested in before) as it's quite arty and tells a human story of fortitude and flirtations with fame. Of course if you are a fan though you will certainly enjoy the archive even more. At the time of writing you can buy this new for about £8 and used for a lot less. There are a smattering of extras with the DVD. Four performances by Joni Mitchell (of Big Yellow Taxi, Amelia, Hejira and Woodstock), a photo gallery, discography, and some out-takes from the many interviews conducted for the film.