Joni Mitchell’s 1970 Isle of Wight performance is captured in Both Sides Now, a fascinating historical document of the artist amid the chaos of this iconic festival.
This film showcases Mitchell’s performance interspersed with behind the scenes footage, and gives the viewer a sense of the tumultuous times in which it took place. It’s difficult to believe what Mitchell had to endure to play at this festival. Misplaced fan outrage is palpable outside the venue; one man demands that all the music be free to everyone, apparently because he hadn’t bought a ticket. Another declares that ‘It’s nothing but money…the music isn’t revolutionary at all!’ Irate hippies are then seen crashing the gates and angrily demanding to be admitted, while promoters threaten to expel them all.
There is a stark contrast between these kinds of incendiary standoffs and the beautiful performance that Mitchell delivered. That she was able to do this under such circumstances speaks to her power as an artist; it must have been daunting to go out in front of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them angry and loud. Mitchell, surrounded by towers of amplifiers meant for the Who, went out and did a solo acoustic performance worthy of the ages anyway.
Mitchell’s songs, which included “Woodstock,’ “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “A Case of You,’ among other gems, resonate through the years in a way that few artists can manage. She has an angelic voice and her songs demand attention and respect, which makes it painful to watch when the audience interrupts her. At one point, a fan goes onstage, disrupts her set and starts to make a drugged out announcement, perilously close to her at the piano. Security finally drags him off but it’s hard to believe she had to put up with this during a set, and it is difficult to watch.
It’s interesting to see Mitchell’s current day commentary on all this. In between songs, she talks about the scene at Isle of Wight and her songwriting process. At one point she reflects that the promoters ‘fed her to the beast’ by sending her out in front of this irate crowd. Yet she even gamely came out to give an encore, which is more than this group deserved. By then, though, it seems that they are at rapt attention. As Mitchell says, “The beast had changed its mind,” no doubt thanks to her brave performance.