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Mitchell Disc A Labor of Love for DVD Producer

6 Apr, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

It would be tempting to let a pop music icon guide the creative direction of his or her own life story on film, especially when it's an artist given to exposing heartfelt emotions in a way that is so public, if faceless, as musical performance.

Joni Mitchell got no such luxury from the PBS “American Masters” series. Like any other artist in the series, she had to give it over to the video biographers.

“She had no say over it whatsoever. I think that sometimes is hard for her. She has always been her own producer. She has called the shots on her career. ‘American Masters' can't [give a subject control]. Journalistic rules abide here,” said “American Masters” executive producer Susan Lacy, who was intimately involved in the music bio Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind. “The reason it's not a problem in most cases, the reason people don't angst over giving it up, is that we are a series that is about the work. Unlike a lot of biography series, which are about gossip, it's about their work and trying to show why somebody is a master.”

Lacy has worked on many biographies for “American Masters,” but Mitchell's was closer to her heart than most.

“I have loved Joni Mitchell my whole life. I traced my life and all of the changes and growth in it through Joni,” Lacy said. “I loved getting to know her. We spent a lot of time together, and she is an extraordinary woman.”

That sympathy shows in the documentary due June 3 (prebook May 15) from Eagle Vision, following its PBS TV debut April 2, but not so much as to give in to sentimentality. Instead, viewers are treated to an unvarnished picture of Mitchell's life, which emerges as a portrait of an artist trying to find her own voice in a world that rewards conformity and commercialism.

“Music is our thing, but when you take an artist like Joni Mitchell, it's a rock star story, it's a singer/songwriter story, it's a mother story and a woman story,” said Eagle Vision president Steve Sterling. So if the documentary was long in coming, Sterling feels it was worth the wait.

“When you are taking on a story like Joni Mitchell, you have to approach it with a sort of reverence and let it take its time,” he said. “There is a real appetite out there for this type of product. In the DVD era that we are in, the fans are there and they are going to buy it. DVD is sort of a youth-culture medium -- there is a whole generation that is investigating new things.”

Sterling hopes that will help the title at retail, as younger consumers get their first taste of a self-taught singer-songwriter whose career, by her own admission in the film, got direction from pain and adversity rather than advantage.

“What they are doing more and more is broadening their interest,” he said. “Rap and hip-hop have focused interest on songwriters and true poets. The stories they are telling have to resonate with the consumer. In the case of Joni Mitchell, it is the life that everyone has heard about but they have not seen it and heard about it.” It is that story Lacy strived to tell, using Mitchell's own musical and spoken accounts.

“Each chapter is told through a song or two that formed the basis of her album. It drives me crazy when you see a film about a musician and it doesn't have anything about the music,” she said.

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