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Music

Five instances where Joni Mitchell saved weak films

Joni Mitchell is a strong artist. Yes, Joni Mitchell is a strong artist. I’ll say it again: Joni Mitchell is a strong artist. And so it is that a strong artist should appear in strong pieces of cinema. Well, sadly that isn’t the case for Ms. Mitchell.

Well, that’s not strictly true: She played a blinder on The Last Waltz, which stands as one of Martin Scorsese’s strongest works, and she’s definitely written for some seminal tv series. But in cinema, she seems determined to write for Richard Curtis, who is quite possibly the worst director of his generation.

And yet there’s a reality to her voice that brings out the best from the actors, however briefly and however fleetingly. The only other artist who has that power is Paul McCartney, and he managed to salvage Vanilla Sky from the bottom of the barrel into something palatable for three minutes.

So, let’s not linger too much on the negative – we have the yellow presses for that particularly indignity – and let’s look at the five films Mitchell managed to save in her time. And a one, and a two, and a one, two, three..

The five films, in order of greatness:

5. ‘Both Sides Now’ – Love Actually (2003)

To call this film trash would be an insult to the waste material that makes up the recycling centres, to call the acting wooden is an insult to the logs that keep us warm during the long British winters, and to call this film a “film” is dubious, since it’s a bunch of recycled vignettes put together to make a spurious whole. It’s longwinded, slow-paced banal baloney, and stands as one of the worst features of the 2000s, which is a high feat when that was similarly the decade of The Scorpion King and The Cat In The Hat.

But no film, no matter how wretched is beyond merit, and the film features a haunting musical segment showcasing the singer at her most vulnerable, yearning and searching. Indeed the older tones fits ‘Both Sides Now’, as it transpires that the older we get, the less we understand about our fellow man. It’s a pretty sequence, squandered by the mawkishness that comes after.

4.’Big Yellow Taxi’ – Two Weeks Notice (2002

Until 2013, Hugh Grant did not spell out quality entertainment. The vast majority of his films (Notting Hill excluded) were the type of dross that are generally tossed out on a drunken Friday night, destined to distract opiod induced viewers from taking that plunge through a window by putting them in front of a screen flickering the same banal plot that had cemented their choices to this point of extreme penance and contemplation. Grant was always an easy out, and so viewers took him for (Hugh) granted.

But Two Weeks Notice also features another striking Mitchell number, giving the film momentary excellence that shows that the actors were willing to demonstrate an eagerness to bring out the emotions of the number, provided that it stood within their grasp of reality and essence. It’s a strong choice of number.

3. ‘Funeral Song’- Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

From now on, the films aren’t awful, but merely mediocre. And out of the five films to make this list, Alice’s Restaurant is likely the least seen, but it’s the most interesting, precisely because it was cut during the late 1960s, a time of great change and dynamic. It’s a film that simply screams the 1960s, which is why the work in question is the work of an artist exploring their interests in a world pivoting from the sincere, and headfirst into the realm of symphonic and singular.

But as ever Mitchell’s voice is a welcome respite from some truly baffling silhouettes, which could never made into the realm of mainstream cinema in another decade. The music is sombre, selective, singular and sung with great regard for the abstract nature in front of them.

2. ‘The Circle Game’ – The Strawberry Statement (1970)

Again, this film is by no means bad, but it is bafflingly abstract, and will likely put off viewers aching for something more immediate, and refined in its approach. The film was released in 1970, but it feels like a film from the 1960s, particularly the latter decade, considering the obscurity and obtuse nature of the cameras in question glide through the air to capture a sense of purpose and place in a decade that made every effort to cast off the shackles of both. As it is, The Strawberry Statement makes a statement, but it probably wasn’t the one it intended to make.

But once again Mitchell’s voice – angular and razor-sharp as it is – comes in to save the day at the right moment. She lifts the production through a difficult moment, bringing a sense of reality and presence in a work that otherwise has very little of it. Mitchell really is brilliant, you know?

1. ‘River’ – Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous might not be perfect, but it’s the best film to make this list, and by a country mile too. In fact, it’s more than a country, it’s a series of countries coming together in the hope of building something grander and more secure in its standing as the greatest continent on earth. Now what could I possibly be thinking of? Anyway, Almost Famous is almost brilliant, and definitely worth a watch, even by casual rock fans.

Considering the scope of the film, it made sense to include Mitchell in the final mix, and her strong, sritting vocal presence casts a wide shadow over the film at large. Certainly, her presence brings gravitas to the film, particularly in the way it brings out many of the stranger themes to the forefront.