In the pantheon of classic concert movies, Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Waltz” (an all-star final concert by The Band) from 1978 and Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” (starring Talking Heads) from 1984, still reign supreme.
The general consensus is that Joni Mitchell’s performance of her song “Coyote”, as well as “Shadows and Light” and “Furry Sings The Blues”, along with her accompanying vocals on Neil Young’s “Helpless” are among the greatest moments in “The Last Waltz”.
With “Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration” (Trafalgar Releasing), it’s Joni’s turn to be feted in concert style. Filmed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on November 7, 2018 (the actual date of Mitchell’s 75th birthday), the concert is even more significant given that we almost lost Joni to a brain aneurysm in 2015.
Seated in the audience, Joni looks radiant as she is showered with musical love and affection. A large screen on the upstage wall featured a variety of images – retro stills and Mitchell’s paintings are projected throughout the course of the show. In addition to the performers taking a moment to extend birthday greetings to Mitchell, there are video recordings of birthday wishes from Elton John and Peter Gabriel.
Norah Jones opens the concert with a respectful reading of “Court and Spark”. For his rendition of “Coyote”, Glen Hansard (of “Once” fame) maintains the genders of the original version, and also incorporates howling sounds from the band. Diana Krall is one of the few sour notes of the concert. Her version of “For The Roses” is drawn out and overwrought, while her take on “Amelia” is self-indulgent.
A bearded and blue-lit Rufus Wainwright, who thanks his husband Jörn Weisbrodt for being one of the co-organizers of the concert, sang a heartfelt “Blue” and later a swinging cover of “All I Want”. Another queer showstopper is Brandi Carlile who joined Kris Kristofferson on “A Case of You” and then blew everyone away with her breathtaking rendition of “Down To You”. Mitchell is an artist who has long had a sizable following in the LGBTQ community, and has even included queer folks in songs such as “Two Grey Rooms” and “Tax Free”.
Other outstanding performances include those by Emmylou Harris (who said she would be lightening the mood with a song “about women that were enslaved in convents back in Ireland” when she sang “The Magdalene Laundries”), a gushing Chaka Khan (a sparkly cover of “Help Me” and an emotional take on “Two Grey Rooms”), Los Lobos and La Marisoul (joined by Chaka Khan on a rousing version of “Dreamland”). A pair of Joni’s exes were also among the performers. James Taylor sang “River” and “Woodstock”. Graham Nash on the other hand, was the only one to divert from the Mitchell songbook, choosing instead to sing “Our House”, a song he wrote for Joni when they were in their 20s.
Backed by a band featuring Brian Blade, Scarlett Rivera and Greg Leisz, to name a few, the concert was definitely one for the history books. The finale, which included all the performers singing “Big Yellow Taxi”, where they were joined onstage by a beaming Mitchell, was a little slice of paradise.
Originally planned as a one-time movie theater experience, an additional 115 theatrical showings of “Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration” have been added through March 3. PBS will also begin airing “Joni 75” in early March. Visit joni75.com for more information.