Joni Mitchell Marks Her 71st Birthday With a Film, a Ballet and a Conversation

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James Lozeau

"Swallow your prejudice and take the trip." This is Joni Mitchell's pitch to the seven hundred-something people gathered at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum on a warm Thursday night in early November. The "trip" in question is The Fiddle and the Drum, a film that Mitchell edited. It features a 2007 ballet performance of the same name that she conceptualized and scored with choreographer Jean Grand-Maitre, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet in Canada. The title is taken from Mitchell's 1969 song; like the tune (and much of her past work), the performance critiques war and patriotism and, to a lesser extent, the tense relationship between people and nature.

This also happens to be Joni Mitchell's birthday. She isn't at home lounging on a couch, nor is she with famous friends. She has chosen to celebrate her 71st year on earth at an event called Love Has Many Faces: The Art of Joni Mitchell. The party is at once a celebration and a platform to address the problems that plague humankind. Oh, and there is also cake.

The film screening happens first. The performance is riveting, because the dancers do not gently pirouette; they are feral, thrusting and fainting while dancing. Makeup artists have made the dancers' faces ashen; they look as though they're suffering from shock. They wield fake machine guns, search and destroy in uniform to edgy Mitchell cuts such as "The Beat of Black Wings." It's captivating, but sometimes I feel a disconnect between the dancers' movement and the words sung. The resulting work is a bit ramshackle, but maybe that's the point. Humans, like war, are messy by design.

What The Fiddle and the Drum does successfully is lay war bare. It's clear that Mitchell has reached into her own past to illustrate the consequences of war. Many years before, she spoke emotively about watching her friends avoid the Vietnam War draft through desperate means, including self-induced psychosis through excessive drug use, and this is but one memory that comes across in the performance. Mitchell has said that she "sings her sorrow and paints her joy," but the portraits she painted for the set backdrop behind the dancers are grim.

The choreography slightly outshines the music in the performance, and I believe this was her intention. Mitchell doesn't enjoy the spotlight. The artist recently revealed in her memoir that she's long been grappling with a rare medical condition that made her feel as though she had parasites under her skin, which understandably made her reclusive. She put an end to the film that was reportedly being created about her own life (Taylor Swift was rumored to want the role). Even tonight, we find out that when Grand-Maitre initially pitched her the ballet, he had intended it to be about her life. "Absolutely not," she had told him back in the early 2000s.

After the screening, Mitchell takes the small stage in the Hammer Museum's courtyard, fields questions from the fervent crowd and promotes her new career-spanning box set, Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to be Danced, out November 17. It's intended to be a four-act ballet, and she explains her plans to — hopefully — collaborate further with Grand-Maitre and the Alberta Ballet to bring the tunes to life.

The Hammer Museum is an arm of the University of California, Los Angeles, and the mood during the Q&A is appropriately educational, yet jovial. Mitchell cracks wise that she "sounded like I was on helium" in the early 1970s, because she hadn't discovered her talent for singing alto yet. But she is earnest in the conversation, too. "I grew up a black kid in the '60s in all-white neighborhoods and schools. Your music was a big part of me getting through that," a fellow says when he takes the mike. "I was hoping you would do some work of art to touch upon that time? Comment on race relations in the country?" he asked. "I grew up a woman in a man's world," she says, empathizing.

Joni Mitchell is not a native daughter of California. The artist hails from Fort Macleod, in Canada's Alberta province, but moved as a child to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which she still considers her hometown. Like many ex-pats, Mitchell spent her youth flitting through counties and cities until she arrived somewhere that moved her differently — in this case, Los Angeles. L.A. is Mitchell's spiritual home away from home, partially because California is where her masterworks were made. The surrounding environs of canyons and crystal waters are painted in albums like Ladies of the Canyon. Listless Southern California afternoons backdrop many of the unsmiling self-portraits projected onto screens in the museum courtyard throughout the night.

It's here too where Mitchell matured into the polemic force she has become in popular culture. She was one of the first folk singers to sing candidly about sexuality and womanhood (one especially moving painting of hers we see tonight involves a pair of shaky hands holding two eggs). Mitchell also shamelessly condemned man — and womankind — for destroying their kinship with the Earth. Most famously, she bemoaned urbanization and the way humans have thoughtlessly "paved paradise and put up a parking lot." The tough Mitchell emerged triumphant in a world stacked against her, but the songs were informed by sorrow; past trauma includes giving up a child for adoption, failed relationships, batterings and feeling the weight of being a public figure with her privacy stripped away.

When the 1971 album Blue shot her into stardom, Mitchell recoiled from the attention. Post-Blue, she set folk aside and dabbled in L.A.'s flourishing 1970s jazz scene, a move that some critics deemed "pretentious." This is not a word I would use to describe Joni Mitchell; her presence is humbling, and she appears grateful to her fans, some of whom lined up as early as 8:30 a.m. this morning to see her speak.

Curmudgeonly, maybe. Mitchell grumbles about the current "thumb-twiddling generation who don't put their energy towards creativity too much" and rambles about how "contemporary music is all formulaic, and I can't listen to it." Mitchell's youth was marked by talk of revolution, both artistic and political. At this point in time, accessibility and the paradigms of music distribution are changing thanks to the Internet. Artistic movements are being made, albeit in different ways. Her dismissal of contemporary culture and an entire demographic leaves a sour taste in my mouth, because it is precisely everything Mitchell fought against as a young artist.

This celebration, though, ends predictably: with the crowd singing "Happy Birthday" to Joni. She blows the candles out, then immediately retreats into a back room. Servers immediately dole out slices of birthday cake. Those in the crowd, previously poised, leap over one another, scrambling for a piece of Mitchell.

I watch the scene in front of me unfold, and a server shoves a small slice of white cake into my palm. I'm one of the lucky ones, I guess. I stand in a corner, shoveling chunks of it into my mouth. The room where Mitchell now holds court is just beyond a glass pane, so everyone can see the small moment of peace she enjoys with the crowd contained on the other side.

A distinguished-looking lady with wire-rimmed eyeglasses comes up to me and points at the pastry in my hand. "What kind of cake is that?" she asks.

"Vanilla," I tell her.

She looks at the masses shoving elbows in front of us, reaching for the star and her cake. "Not worth fighting for," she surrenders.

Correction: The article above previously stated that Joni Mitchell's hometown was Saksatoon. It has been amended to reflect that Joni Mitchell is from Saskatoon.