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Joni Mitchell - Painting with Words and Music - DTS

Image // Unrated // October 5, 1999
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted August 20, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Age has done nothing to dampen the spirit of Joni Mitchell. Though she hasn't had a certified hit record in almost two decades, her influence seems far from spent. While the rest of the pop world trampled along on a pathetic path toward prerecorded pandering, all this enigmatic artist could do was sit back and watch as her certified brand of introspective female singer/songwriter became the fodder for festivals (Lilith Fair, anyone?) and countless VH-1 style video vixens. Though she never meant to pass the ethereal baton, it seems that every new woman not trying to mimic Chrissie Hynde, Madonna or Janet Jackson has been hanging her acoustic dreams on the court and spark coattails of this rock pioneer. Instead of making her mad or melancholy, however, Mitchell just came back, fighting. Over the last few years, she has released albums (Taming the Tiger, The Beginning of Survival), compilations (the Hits/Misses Collections) and DVD versions of several of her most distinguished live performances (most notably, Shadows and Light and Refuge of the Roads). A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (though a reluctant recipient at best) and a living legend in the world of folk, Mitchell has always been a better live performer than a recording artist, and no where is this dichotomy more clear than on Eagle Vision's recent DVD release of Joni's 1998 concert Painting with Words and Music. Utilizing an 'in the round' setting and covering material from her entire career, this wonderful live event is the perfect situation in which to see Mitchell work her musical magic. From the opening strut of her earliest hit to the somber, sensational songs that make up her later works, this is a fantastic recital captured in near flawless sound and image.

The DVD:
In this 1998 production, filmed at the Warner Brothers' studio on an unusual set of Mitchell's own design and concept (a circular stage is surrounded by couches and easy chairs instead of the standard seats, while the walls are festooned with many of Joni's canvases and paintings) the gifted artist is supported by an excellent band, featuring ex-husband Larry Klein on bass and several other stellar musicians. Playing a treated electric guitar in an open tuning, Mitchell embraces and enlivens her catalog, picking out the following highlights to mesmerize her audience:

"Big Yellow Taxi" – from the 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon
"Just Like This Train" – from the 1974 album Court and Spark
"Night Ride Home" – from the 19991 album Night Ride Home
"Crazy Cries of Love" – from the 1998 album Taming the Tiger
"Harry's House" – from the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns
"Black Crow" – from the 1900 album Hejira
"Amelia" – from the 1900 album Hejira
"Hejira" – from the 1900 album Hejira
"Sex Kills" – from the 1994 album Turbulent Indigo
"The Magdelene Laundries" - from the 1994 album Turbulent Indigo
"Moon at the Window" – from the 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast
"Facelift" – from the 1998 album Taming the Tiger
"Why Do Fools Fall In Love" – cover version of the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers song, from Mitchell's 1980 live album Shadows and Light
"Trouble Man" – cover version of the Marvin Gaye song, from the 1999 live album Painting with Words and Music
"Nothing Can Be Done" – from the 1991 album Night Ride Home
"Song for Sharon" – from the 1900 album Hejira
"Woodstock" – from the 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon
"Dream Land" – from the 1977 album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter

It's hard to believe it, but Joni Mitchell will turn 61 this year (in November, to be exact). It seems like only yesterday that the Sonny and Cher show featured an animated version of her hit "Big Yellow Taxi" (a 1971 cartoon short revolving around Adam and Eve, directed by John Wilson) and the radio rejoiced with the celebratory sounds of "Free Man in Paris". Since the pinnacle of her career in the mid-70s, Mitchell has been in a rapid freefall of popularity while slowly building up an ever-increasing pantheon of influence. Most modern music made by women owes some manner of debt to Mitchell – either lyrically or sonically - while several artists (Nanci Griffith, Emily Sparks) have actually plumed her sense of originality and style to guide their own persona. Still, if you ask someone weaned on Britney and Christina to name a single song she's penned, you'll probably find many flummoxed to even acknowledge her existence or importance (others will simply spit out Judy Collin's saintly take on "Both Side Now" from rock and roll rote). One of the greatest crimes in the legacy of the business called show is that Ms. Mitchell isn't a mega-star, the kind of mythical luminary featured on an episode of Cribs instead of Where Are They Now? Her contribution to the art of melody and poetry deserves it. So for many of us – this critic included – she remains ever the secret savior, the soothing sound of harmony brushing back the private pain. What the rest of the populace fails to embrace is their own damn fault...and loss.

Painting with Words and Music, like all of Mitchell's similar live performances, is part confessional, part cathedral. A near religious experience in the melding of sound to sensation, the emotional tug of Mitchell's music is always best experienced stripped of many of its more aggravating aspects. Notorious for occasionally making albums so opaque that even the most ardent fan x-rays have difficulty penetrating them the first time around, a Mitchell concert is almost always an understated, near minimalist affair. Though Joni has been known to explore all realms, facets and genres of music – everything from avant-garde jazz to world music – she has always stayed true to the two muses that make up her amazing songs – the tune and the words. And it is these elements that she concentrates on during performances like Painting with Words and Music. It shows you how much talent and tenacity this artist has that she can tackle songs like "Big Yellow Taxi", "Sex Kills" and "Face Lift" with little or no accompaniment. The near acapella renditions (with a little help from her lilting, ephemeral guitar strumming) of these tunes underlies the one thing Mitchell is sure of: though her albums may not make the Top 40 and her concerts play the smaller venues, she has crafted some of the most timeless music ever produced by an artist of any gender.

There is a sense of being part of a defining experience while watching Painting with Words and Music, something beyond the celebrity guests (k.d. lang, Rosanna Arquette) in the audience and the occasional insert shots of Joni's paintings. In essence, we are watching Mitchell start to settle into her status as the ultimate folk/rock diva, a Renaissance woman finally acknowledging her own significance. Some of this may have to do with the recent reunion with a daughter she gave up for adoption in the 60s. But it is more likely the verification that her fans and the spectators who come to witness her wonders finally "get" her. For a while, females in rock were all about sex, skin and superficiality. For all her bravura vocal ranging and laid back L.A. lady image, no one really calls Linda Ronstadt a major influence on the art of songwriter (she is, after all, a vocalist). But Mitchell has always combined the elements of all musicians, both the skill at an instrument and the depth of her writing, to formulate a more precise public persona. She is, at one time, the complexity and purity of music; the stark vision of night over the city or the calming sensation of a cool breeze off the ocean. She can work a kind of mental tongue twister with her words and phrases, or lay out the most basic primer to passion ever conceived. She has always been a hugely noteworthy and central part of the ever-shifting parameters of women in rock and roll. And now, she seems happy to assume her titular office.

Painting with Words and Music is a sensational performance piece. Mitchell and her band gel in a manner that makes music suddenly leap off the screen and speakers to surpass the moment. Time and time again you will be moved, both spiritually and aesthetically, by this brilliant collection of songs. Highlights include her exceptional readings of "Just Like This Train", "The Magdalene Laundries" and "Song for Sharon". She is particularly poignant when discussing the Yuletide wisdom in "Facelift" or how a trip across the country inspired the majority of her amazing album Hejira (with both the title track and the stellar "Amelia" offered here as proof). Sure, there are a couple of throwaway elements, times when Joni is working out her rock and roll poses for the crowd. How else do you explain the mood altering addition of her campy take on "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"? And though she is one of the most soulful performers within her genre, she is no Marvin Gaye. Therefore, a cover of "Trouble Man" is interesting, but not all that remarkable. When she sticks to the material that made her a legend, Mitchell has no equal. One waft of the melody line from "Nothing Can Be Done" or the personal protest of "Woodstock" should tell you this. Even the appearance by fellow 60s refugee Graham Nash (of CSNY, among others) can't dampen the drama of this concert (there to present Mitchell her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trophy, a flummoxed Joni just goofs around before getting back to business). This is music the way it was meant to be heard and played.

Indeed, of all the concert performances out there, Painting with Words and Music is one of Mitchell's best. She is completely in control here, allowing her muse to transform the intimate setting into an arena of raw emotion. Each song utilizes its unique ambiance to chill or thrill the air and the audience is often moved to tears. Instead of trying to trick the eye with numerous effects and convolutions, director Joan Tosoni simply lets the camera linger on Mitchell as she strums her guitar and sings like a songbird. While some fans may be perplexed over the selection of material (will Joni ever give us a live reading of "Help Me" or "Free Man in Paris"? Where are selections from Mingus?) this is still a sensational song cycle, beautifully realized and expertly performed. There is a light jazz feel to the backing band that helps to keep Mitchell and her music front and center, and while none of the other musicians outshine her, they do provide a magnificent milieu to many of her more evocative tunes. Like having this renowned artist step into your living room and serenade you for 90 minutes, Joni Mitchell: Painting with Words and Music is an extraordinary concert event. Fans of the female Bob Dylan will find more than enough fodder to feed their worshipping ways. But those unfamiliar with this vital musical icon would have no better starting point from which to learn than this amazing performance. Painting with Words and Music is the reason, both figuratively and literally, why Joni Mitchell is at the pinnacle of her genre. She is one of the greatest artists of all time.

The Video:
A shimmering, radiant transfer that casts Joni and her band in a warm and ethereal light, Painting with Words and Music offers a magnificent image in its full screen, 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Though there are times when it looks like the video image will flare or bleed, and the decidedly soft-focus elements used to smooth out any "aging" issues can be distracting (especially when the insert shots of Mitchell's paintings are so detailed you can see the brush strokes), the overall picture is pristine on this DVD and matches the endearing glow of Mitchell's performance pieces perfectly.

The Audio:
There are three different sonic scenarios one can explore with Joni Mitchell: Painting with Word and Music and each is aurally amazing on its own terms. The Dolby Digital Stereo is incredibly subtle, allowing for even the most refined moment to shimmer with ambient bliss. Even better is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, an immersive experience that places you at the center of Mitchell's measured musical maelstrom. But for true fans of flawless sound, the DTS version of the 5.1 Surround is simply mind blowing. The tone is so rich and real, so lifelike and alive that you'll swear you are seated on one of those comfortable sofas surrounding the stage. Though there may be some who find this audio addition far too much of a good thing, individuals in love with the purity of sound will find all the options here the makings for a magnificent musical soundscape.

The Extras:
While it would have been nice for Eagle Eye Media to stretch out the limits of the digital domain and offer up a few choice contextual bonuses to broaden the DVD's marketing appeal, the duo of added elements here are perfectly acceptable. First, we are treated to a discography of Mitchell's music: nothing more than a list of album credits, but at least we have the chance to look at her amazing canon (not in any detail, though. It's just a collection of names). Similarly, we get a basic filmography for the performer, featuring some (but not all) of her cinematic experiences. While it would have been nice to have a gallery of Mitchell's paintings or some lyric screens, at least Eagle Eye acknowledges Mitchell's creative output over the years. That is more than some DVD companies even begin to offer.

Final Thoughts:
It is hard to put into words what makes Joni Mitchell's music so enchanting. She is one of those rare artisans who finds a way to match a perfect melody line with an equally flawless verse, building both into an epiphany of passion and mood. Her unique approach to accompaniment is more suggestive of a set designer on a film, someone who understands that the environment should enhance, not completely overwhelm, the main attraction. Standing like a statue to all the issues women have had to face in the 40 odd years she's been part of the music scene - from feminism and equality to the right to choose and the gift of life – Joni Mitchell is the zenith of her chosen profession and a one of a kind artist who can never be matched. It isn't often when an individual or group excels to become the recognizable force in their genre. But Joni Mitchell is indeed the foundation for all feminine folk/rock. Painting with Words and Music is a stirring tribute to her talent, a chance to watch one of the most imaginative and compelling women ever to grace the stage use her performance paintbox to craft a beautiful canvas of images and sounds. Though she is now rapidly approaching an age where retirement in on the mind of most people, Mitchell is still going strong. And one thing is for certain: her music has a timeless quality that will stay behind long after she has left us. Joni Mitchell is a true original and Painting with Words and Music is a must-own DVD compilation of her creativity.

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