Reviews Of Joni
Mitchell: Woman Of Heart and Mind And Glenn Tilbrook: One For The Road
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/9/13
One might think that if one did a documentary on a subject that was good, that the resulting documentary would, likewise, be good, or better. But, this is not usually the case. And watching these two documentaries on musicians- Joni Mitchell: Woman Of Heart and Mind and Glenn Tilbrook: One For The Road- is a good instruction on why this is so.
Joni Mitchell: Woman Of Heart and Mind is a 91 minute documentary, released in 2003, by director Susan Lacy, and was a part of the PBS series American Masters, and is professionally filmed and edited Yet it fails to achieve excellence on a number of scores, and is surprisingly shallow. It never really delves into Mitchell’s youth, and the things that compelled her toward art- first painting, then music. Also, it tends to follow a very generic path in its adoration of Mitchell. It has a bevy of talking heads. Mostly the usual musical suspects from the 1960s, and then they say almost nothing about Mitchell’s art. Yes, we hear that she was an angel, a poet, a beautiful woman (not really- prototypical artsy looking babe, but quite weird, with her eyes, overbite, and almost simian upturned nose), a this and a that. We hear of her marriage, her giving an out of wedlock child up for adoption (as well as her later reunion with said child, and grandchildren), and we do get a retrospective on her career, from her early folk roots through her disastrous jazz period, and album with Charley Mingus, through her 1980s and 1990s descent into PC screeding.
Of course, this documentary-cum-hagiography would never dare state that her later music was bad, because, well, she did won some Grammy Awards in the 90s. In one clip, we see Mitchell complaining that, after winning the awards, she was saddened to learn that she was constantly referred to as that folks singer from the ‘60s. Why should this be, she wonders, since she’s a ‘90s artist and the awards prove that? Well, by the 1990s, Mitchell was in the phase of her career where feting came with regularity. It happens in most walks of life- the ‘Honorary’ Oscar is the best example. An artist, long past their prime, suddenly gets accolades for their now mediocre work, to make up for the neglect that the ‘establishment’ heaped on them in their more brilliant youth, all the while neglecting worthier, young artists, who will merely repeat the cycle once they hit senescence but get awarded at the expense of their juniors.
Yet, one need only compare Mitchell’s rapidly deteriorating voice over the years to her early work (as amply shown in the film, with a song by song and year by year annotation), and it’s clear that, despite her limits as a musician, and the ridiculousness of conflating her good, but often straightforward song lyrics with real poetry, Mitchell was far better as the folk songbird (after all, every song one can recall that she wrote was written before 1975) than she was as the far from spontaneous jazz chantreuse or the angry, political scold of her later years, when she penned such laughably bad songs as Sex Kills. To even hold that garbage against The Circle Game, Woodstock, Chelsea Morning, or Both Sides Now is absurd. And far from the claims of the film’s talking heads, that Mitchell always sought new challenges, the opposite is true. Her songwriting deteriorated (and, truly, she wrote a mere dozen or so songs that her reputation is based upon), her songs’ actual melodies were fairly pedestrian, her voice, via age and cigarets, worsened, and, overall, hers is almost a textbook case of a pop musician whose achievements were all done after her first decade in the public eye. Since then, it’s been a slow steady fade and regression to whatever happened to? territory.
While Glenn Tilbrook never achieved the mass adoration of Joni Mitchell, at his best, he was a songwriter equally adept. While never declaimed a poet, he was half of one of the best songwriting duos of the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with Chris Difford, in the British band Squeeze. The 70 minute long 2004 documentary, Glenn Tilbrook: One For The Road, is also a pretty bad film. While the Mitchell film fails because of its banality and lack of introspection, the same flaws do not inhabit director, and fangirl, Amy Pickard’s film. Rather, a lack of professionalism in camera work, editing, and narrative structure accomplish that.
The film follows Tilbrook, then 44, on his 2001 solo tour of the U.S. As the band had long ago broken up, Tilbrook decided to tour the U.S. by RV, and play small venues with his acoustic guitar. Tilbrook proves quite the showman, often leading his audience in backs and forths, walks in darkened alleys and through subways, and even playing a mean acoustic guitar when challenged to play Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) by a local disk jockey. Naturally, the film follows Tilbrook on his peregrinations and difficulties with his RV, his wife, and his documentarian and her camera man. There are some nice, intimate moments, and Tilbrook comes off as far more personable and interesting than Mitchell does. The problem is that the film is not only a mish-mash, technically, but we know how it will go and end, with little doubt. All works out well, despite the breakdown of the RV, and we get an epilogue telling us that Tilbrook used the RV for three more years’ worth of tours.
Unfortunately, we hear little new in the man’s musical arsenal, as he seems to be, like Mitchell, at a creative dead end. Yes, hits like Tempted, Black Coffee In Bed, Take Me, I’m Yours, Another Nail In My Heart, Pulling Mussels (From The Shell), and Up The Junction, are nice to hear acoustically, although Tilbrook rarely varies their delivery, but, so what? As in the Mitchell film, we’ve seen this before, and Pickard adds little to suggest that she’s capable of anything more. A superfan got to meet and film her hero. Nice….for her. For us? Not so. This is the kind of film that should have been played only on Pickard’s own personal video equipment, because it looks and feels like a home movie. Yes, Tilbrook is a nice guy, and an underrated musician, and, thankfully, the film is short on the sort of fellatio that ruins the Mitchell film, but, cinematically and biographically, it’s a cipher.
Overall, neither Joni Mitchell: Woman Of Heart and Mind nor Glenn Tilbrook: One For The Road can be recommended to anyone save hardcore fans of either musician, but, if given a choice, I have to say I kind of liked the Tilbrook film, and it was a more interesting idea….on paper, not in execution. However, despite its hagiographizing, the Mitchell film is superior. Choose your poison well, as the old timers say.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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