Directed by Murray Lerner—1970/2018—76 minutes
We are just a few months away from the outpouring of tributes and remembrances marking the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. A lot of that of course will focus on that weekend’s legendary line-up of performers. But what of one artist who didn’t end up on that stage in Bethel, New York, even though she wrote the definitive anthem of the event? Joni Mitchell was scheduled to play for the masses gathered on Max Yasgur’s famous field. But as travel logistics to and from the festival got worse, Joni was held back at the urging (or insistence) of David Geffen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. They wanted to make sure that they had at least one guaranteed performer for a scheduled post-Woodstock edition of the Dick Cavett Show. This left a very disappointed Ms. Mitchell to write her brooding but beatific “Woodstock” after watching news coverage of it from a hotel room.
But Joni would appear at a larger multi-day festival the following summer. The 1970 edition of England’s Isle of Wight event (where attendance topped out at some 600,000), was marked by an acrimonious struggle between radical elements of the audience and what was perceived as greedy owners who cordoned off the grounds and had the audacity to charge admission. Anyone who has seen Murray Lerner’s exemplary documentary of the festival (Message to Love) will know of the fence-busting and the rhetorical fireworks emanating from the stage by both sides. And they would also recall Joni Mitchell’s segment from the film, where she is interrupted by a man trying to borrow her microphone for an impromptu rant.
Both Sides Now faces those troubles head-on, beginning with a sneak preview of Joni doing the famous title intercut with scenes of the general turmoil. The line “it’s life’s illusions I recall” takes on a new meaning here. Symbolically, the 1970 Wight festival was the smudging of the rose-colored lenses thru which Woodstock’s Aquarian ideal was viewed. The commodification of the rock music marketplace, with its vast legions of potential consumers, was well under way. Murray Lerner, who died in 2017, produced several single-artist offshoot videos from his extensive footage, including those of headlining acts like the Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. But this edition, graced with the astute reminisces of Mitchell from a 2003 interview, stands with the best of them both musically and thematically.
Everywhere there was song and celebration… and insurgency? The 1970 Isle of Wight festival as seen from the top of the non-paying section dubbed Desolation Row. Many would try to bust in thru the fencing. Photo Copyright: Chris Weston
Certainly, fans of Joni should not pass this one by, either by viewing the full set on YouTube or by obtaining the keepsake Blu-ray edition. Right from the top, as she straps on her acoustic guitar and starts into the lovely “Song about the Midway,” you can tell this is some special stuff. At this point, she had three albums worth of her uniquely introspective and romantic songs to draw on and her star was on the rise, her current single (“Big Yellow Taxi”) hitting #11 on the U.K. charts. Mitchell was a seasoned performer, confident enough to do three songs from her future classic album, Blue, which wouldn’t come out until the next summer.
Joni performs “Song about the Midway” and “Gallery.”
Joni, whose father’s ancestry was Norwegian, was famously described as a “Nordic princess” in Sheila Weller’s popular 2008 book Girls Like Us, was a luminous presence in her long flaxen hair, tangerine-colored maxi dress and turquoise necklace. The cameramen, after days of shooting hairy guys in hard-rock bands, couldn’t get enough of her. Even when there’s a flub she makes something out of it; after a couple of verses of “Chelsea Morning” she tells the crowd she doesn’t feel like singing that much, but not before finishing the abbreviated number with an impressive flurry of her distinctive open-tuned guitar stylings.
But playing solo acoustic to such a huge and restive crowd proved a little dicey: in Message to Love we see a glib Kris Kristofferson getting nearly booed off the stage. For Joni, the trouble starts when a man who seems like he’s on a bad acid trip is extracted from the crowd close in front of her. She has sat down at the piano for a couple of tunes, singing about a street musician playing “For Free” while her world consists of limo rides and “velvet curtain calls.” Then she tries in vain to get the crowd to sing “we are stardust, we are golden” in the chorus to “Woodstock.” When a man who had been sitting behind her tries to borrow her mike he is all but wrestled off the stage. With the masses ready to erupt, Mitchell exhorts the crowd (at the 2:00 mark of the video below) to give the musicians “some respect” while the man, freaky as he may seem, tells the organizers at the end of that clip that we are indeed “caught in the devil’s bargain.”
Joni Mitchell SINGS “Woodstock.” Then, though visibly nervous, she confronts the unruly isle of Wight crowd after having her performance interrupted by the head of the Committee to Paint the Fence Invisible.
In the interview segments, Joni reflects on just how unnerving the experience was for her 26 year-old self. She remarks on how the 1970 Wight event was the “Hate-the-Performers Festival” and that some of the stars brought it on themselves by arriving in luxury cars or in custom caravans. The event was running behind the schedule and she agreed to play in the tension-filled afternoon instead of at night, in effect being “fed to the beast.” The trouble was stirred up by a faction (which included a pack of French anarchists) called the “Free Festival Radicals.” They were camped out on the hillside behind the site and spent much of their time trying to tear down the fence. The idea that music is some sort of natural occurrence, like the sun setting over an ocean, instead of the end result of a laborious creative process, was a thing at the time (also evident in the film Festival Express, filmed the same year). It is as galling as the idea of illegal downloading that started with Napster and that has made life nowadays even more difficult for musicians not in the upper echelons.
Also in the interviews, Mitchell explains her revelation that a large audience is like a giant dragon with the first five rows like the head. If you placate that part of it, it will send a calming message back down to the rest. Joni finished the set to a won-over audience and one of the best shots Lerner has is the sight of her running back onto the stage for an encore. Yes, the beast of a mass-market rock ‘n’ roll marketplace was about to take over and Mitchell would be one of its most visible jet-setting stars. But in this case, it’s because her talents were rewarded by paying fans who allowed her to keep doing her thing. In view of the lowest-common-denominator, computer-enhanced pop stars that dominate today’s scene, we have indeed paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
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