Music of the Movies: Joni Mitchell

Celebrated Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has recorded twenty two albums in a career spanning more than forty years and ranging across the genres of folk, jazz, and pop. She’s even been named ‘one of the greatest songwriters ever’. Mitchell is a visual as well as musical artist (she produces her own album art), and her influence has not remained restricted to just musical circles. According to IMDb her songs have appeared in over twenty feature films, plus a plethora of TV shows and movies.

Uses of Mitchell’s music in film go far beyond simply serving as background music or accompaniment. Her songs have not only been included frequently by filmmakers, they have been used well. “Used”, in fact, is a misleading word; over the last twenty years Joni Mitchell’s music and popular conceptions of her have been incorporated into the narratives of several films in detailed ways, articulating a critical or fan response to her impressive body of work.

If an example springs to mind it’s likely to be Richard Curtis’ festive juggernaut, Love Actually. Blogs are littered with impassioned defences, angry rants and incisive observations about this divisive film, and this includes criticism of the way it uses songs. Though the brisk alternation from slow instrumental music to upbeat pop in Love Actually’s trailer exemplifies how soundtracks can unsubtly provide audiences with emotional cues, the film’s use of Joni Mitchell’s music is much more developed.

Emma Thompson’s character, Karen, credits Joni Mitchell with teaching her ‘how to feel’, and later cries to “Both Sides Now” after uncovering the almost-adultery of her husband (Alan Rickman). Mitchell’s reference to ‘love’s illusions’ clearly resonates with Karen’s situation, but Love Actually’s allusions to Mitchell run a little deeper. While this scene is probably the more memorable, there’s actually another Mitchell song on the film’s soundtrack. “River” (Blue, 1971) plays in another of Thompson’s scenes, reinforcing the stated significance of Joni Mitchell’s music to her character.

This scene features “Both Sides Now” from Mitchell’s 2000 album of the same name. This is a re-recording distinct from the original song which appeared as “Both Sides, Now” on Clouds (1969).

Mitchell is present in Love Actually almost as a character – she’s a real person made to overlap with the fictional world of Curtis’ film (though not to the extent that Bruce Springsteen does by cameoing in High Fidelity). Karen’s claim above, and its implication that the songs of Joni Mitchell are emotionally honest and powerful, goes some way towards explaining why Joni Mitchell’s music has proved so popular to filmmakers.

If you’re not quite sold, Lisa Cholodenko’s fantastic The Kids are All Right depicts characters arguably even more attached to Mitchell; same-sex parents Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) named their daughter after her. When the grown-up Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) track down their sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo) admiration for Joni Mitchell is perhaps the only other common ground he and Nic share. This leads to a scene that, due to the high calibre of acting ability around the table, is lovely yet also conveys the initial embarrassment of Nic’s children as she starts singing Mitchell’s “All I Want” (Blue, 1971).

The lyrics ‘do you see how you hurt me baby/So I hurt you too’ are rendered all the more heartbreaking by the painful realisation Nic undergoes in the film’s subsequent minutes. Mitchell herself has spoken about her extreme honesty on Blue, and perhaps it is this that enabled the lines above, and the spirit of “All I Want” as a whole, to so aptly summarise the relationship Moore and Bening vividly portray in The Kids Are All Right. As Jules later expresses, theirs is a mature relationship bogged down with ‘all the shit’ of daily life, and perhaps in need of renewal in the form of fun shared experiences, a scenario suggested in Mitchell’s entreaty ‘do you want to dance with me baby’.

In Practical Magic, a 1998 film about two sisters who come from a long line of witches, Mitchell’s song “A Case of You” is performed – well, lip-synced, by Nicole Kidman’s Jilly. Again, the suggestions of Mitchell’s words resonate with the narrative. Jilly’s singalong could indicate her identification with Mitchell’s metaphor, ‘I could drink a case of you darling/Still I’d be on my feet’, as she later describes not being able to get enough of her new boyfriend to her sister Sally (Sandra Bullock). Music, in this case, assists character development.

Though she stopped touring and released her (apparently) final album in 2007, Mitchell’s music continues to find its way into films. Recently Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild has made reference to Joni Mitchell’s music, replicating Cheryl Strayed’s reference to “California” (Blue, 1971) from the source material. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is seen writing the lyric ‘Will you take me as I am?’ in the Pacific Coast Trail register during her hike, and these words, in a similar vein to the readings above, have been seen by Time’s Eliza Berman as a parallel to Vallée’s proffering of a ‘foul-mouthed, unfaithful, abrasive and irresponsible’ protagonist. His film, and Witherspoon’s performance, ask the viewer to take Strayed as she is.

But Cheryl Strayed is a real person and not just a character in a film. She really did quote Mitchell’s words in the PCT register, and this exemplifies the fact that fans have found profound significance in Mitchell’s music. It is this that filmmakers like Curtis and Cholodenko have tapped into, whilst also being attentive to the strength of narrative in Mitchell’s songs, and invoking these alongside comparable stories of romantic relationships in various stages.