Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration review – heartfelt tribute to revered singer

From Chaka Khan to James Taylor, an all-star lineup perform some of Joni Mitchell’s finest songs to mark her 75th birthday

This event cinema presentation offers a chance to see one of the two tribute concerts held last November in Los Angeles to honour Joni Mitchell. The revered singer-songwriter, now 75, fully deserves to be feted by an eclectic lineup of artists channelling her music. Fans should be warned, however, that although she can be seen here in occasional cutaways enjoying the show – and younger versions of her pop up in archive clips, photos and painted self-portraits – because of ill health she no longer performs.

So viewers have to make do with arresting, occasionally straight-up but mostly fascinating reinterpretations of Mitchell’s songs, performed by guest singers and an all-star house band. Arguably, the best performances here take the song in a new direction and transmute it with sheer force of personality – as is the case with old friend Chaka Khan’s soaring Help Me, or her magnificent teaming with La Marisoul for a swingy, latinate Dreamland. Rufus Wainwright’s Blue is more like superior karaoke, too close to the original arrangement to really surprise, and James Taylor’s River doesn’t quite land for the opposite reason, with a transposition that alters it out of recognition.

But there are plenty of gems here, including Emmylou Harris’s startling interpretation of The Magdalene Laundries, Wainwright’s redemptive take on All I Want, Diana Krall’s husky Amelia, and a cracked, Johnny Cash-sings-Hurt-style execution of A Case of You by Kris Kristofferson with assist from Brandi Carlile. There are perhaps a few too many cuts from Mitchell’s most renowned, easily accessible album Blue – where’s the love for The Hissing of Summer Lawns or Hejira?

However, there’s one touching outlier. Ex-lover Graham Nash, from Crosby, Stills and Nash, submits a gentle rendition of his own song Our House, written when he and Mitchell were enjoying domestic bliss in Laurel Canyon in the 60s, with backing from the whole audience because everyone knows the words.

Very little chat pads out the transitions, and what there is tends to be predictably hagiographic and gushing. Peter Gabriel, checking in via Skype to say hello, is a welcome change with his admission that he imagines Joni “could be a difficult sod at times”, but her music will endure, with its melodies sparkling “like jewels on a trampoline, jumping all around”.

Contributor

Leslie Felperin

The GuardianTramp

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