Languishing at home unable to speak due to a brain aneurism, singer songwriter Joni Mitchell changed the face of pop music with her emotionally charged lyrics. Until she came along folk songs were about politics and racism. But Joni brought the focus of ‘me’ with her inward facing lyrics dealing with emotional trauma on a personal level.
I think filmmakers can learn from artists in other fields. Can you add in emotion the way Joni Mitchell has done?
If you are unfamiliar with Joni’s music, here is my top seven songs from the Joni Mitchell songbook. Each of these are not only emotionally charged, but paint images as well. Can your movies do the same?
Covered more than 200 times by the likes of Tori Amos, Herbie Hancock, Linda Ronstadt and Aimee Mann, River is one of Mitchell’s most enduring songs.
Featured on 1971’s Blue album, its spare, piano-driven arrangement paints a vivid picture of loss and self-recrimination, with Mitchell facing Christmas with no-one to kiss under the mistletoe.
Key lyric: “I wish I had a river I could skate away on / I wish I had a river so long / I would teach my feet to fly.”
Made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, whose hard-rocking version is a stark contrast to Mitchell’s stripped-down, intimate performance where her multi-tracked voice is set against a simple Wurlitzer electric piano.
A tribute to the 1969 festival of peace, love and music, the song is quiet and thoughtful when the event was anything but.
Mitchell famously did not attend Woodstock, basing her lyrics on the (undoubtedly hazy) recollections of her then-boyfriend, Graham Nash.
Key lyric: “We are stardust / We are golden/ And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.”
3. A Case Of You
A devastatingly gorgeous ballad, A Case Of You captures the nuances and complications of an affair in its dissolution.
“You are in my blood like holy wine,” sings Mitchell, seemingly drunk on love, before delivering the killer blow: “I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.”
But the song also captures her ambiguity over ending the relationship: “Love is touching souls / Surely you touched mine / ‘Cause part of you pours out of me / In these lines from time to time.”
Arguably Mitchell’s best composition, A Case Of You is tucked away at the end of Blue, and exemplifies the album’s searingly intense lyrics.
“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” she told Cameron Crowe in a 1979 interview for Rolling Stone.
“At that period in my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.
“I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.”
Key lyric: “I could drink a case of you / And still be on my feet.”
4. Free Man In Paris
A reflection on the demands of fame, Free Man In Paris is more exuberant and funny than most musicians’ stories of “screaming in a hotel room”.
Mitchell adopts the voice of her record-executive friend David Geffen as he enjoys a worry-free weekend in France, neatly capturing the tension between having power and wanting freedom.
Key lyric: ‘I was a free man in Paris / I felt unfettered and alive / There was nobody calling me up for favours / And no one’s future to decide / You know I’d go back there tomorrow / But for the work I’ve taken on / Stoking the star-maker machinery / Behind the popular song.”
5. Big Yellow Taxi
An upbeat sing-along that hides a message about imminent ecological disaster, Big Yellow Taxi is Mitchell’s biggest radio hit – and her only top 40 single in the UK, reaching number 11 in 1970.
She wrote it after a trip to Hawaii, where she arrived at her hotel in the dead of night.
“When I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”
Key lyric: “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”
6. Help Me
Mitchell’s biggest hit in the States, Help Me is one of her most straightforward compositions – a shimmering, swooning love song that largely adheres to pop’s verse-chorus structures.
It finds the singer helplessly falling for a man she knows is bad news: “A rambler and a gambler and a sweet-talking-ladies man.”
It’s a favourite of funk musician Prince, who references it in The Ballad of Dorothy Parker, from his 1987 album Sign O The Times.
Key lyric: “Help me / I think I’m falling in love again / When I get that crazy feeling, I know / I’m in trouble again.”
7. Both Sides Now
Written in 1967 and originally recorded by Judy Collins, Both Sides Now stemmed from the failure of Mitchell’s first marriage and her decision to give up her daughter for adoption.
It uses clouds as a metaphor for the loss of innocence – how a child pictures “ice cream castles in the air”, but adults only see a portent of bad weather.
Written when she was 21, the world-weary lyrics sat uncomfortably on Mitchell’s young shoulders – but her 2000 re-recording is darker and wiser.
“It took a mature woman to bring it to life,” Mitchell once said.
Key lyric: “I’ve looked at love from both sides now / From give and take and still somehow /It’s love’s illusions I recall.”
Finally, Joni came from my home town which also bred one of the most iconic and game-changing bands of all time: The Band. Here Joni sings an entire ‘movie’ with The Band filmed by Martin Scorcese in a brilliant documentary called The Last Waltz. This song really is an entire movie. Can you do this?