Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 captures the singer performing many of her most celebrated early numbers before a huge audience—as many as 600,000 people. The Blu-ray’s title, borrowed from one of Mitchell’s best-known songs, is fitting, because the movie also shows both sides of the conflict that unfolded at the festival. On one side are the performers and promoters who are trying to maintain the peace and keep the event on track; on the other are the radicals who insist that the musicians either play for free or pack up and go home.
The film—by the late Murray Lerner, who made several other movies about this festival and also one about Bob Dylan’s early performances at Newport—suggests that it was August 1969’s peaceful Woodstock, not the violent Altamont festival later that year, that was a bit of a fluke. Unlike Altamont, the 1970 Isle of Wight event was not the scene of any deaths; but it did witness bad acid trips, violence, and more than a few ugly confrontations with protesters.
By the time the then 26-year-old Mitchell takes the stage on the fourth of the festival’s five days, the situation has spiraled out of control. Audience members are smashing down fences, repeatedly interrupting the singer, and shouting obscenities at her. One man gets on stage, grabs a mike, and starts ranting about how the concert should be free before he can be dragged away.
During the first four songs in her solo set, the vulnerable-looking Mitchell appears shaken and angry; but then she stops, admonishes the crowd, and asks for some respect. She gets it. The audience begins listening attentively; and by the time they call her back for an encore, she is smiling broadly, having won over her listeners.
The film cuts back and forth between Mitchell’s performance and a 2003 interview in which she recalls the event and gives her side of the story. She remembers wanting to flee the stage but explains how she managed to stand her ground and triumph.
If you’re interested in sixties counterculture and the reasons for its demise, you’ll find this movie illuminating. But even if you’re not, you’ll likely enjoy Mitchell’s affecting 11-song performance. Accompanying herself on piano, guitar, and harpsichord, she offers consistently strong versions of such classics as “Chelsea Morning,” “The Gallery,” and “Both Sides Now” from 1969’s Clouds; “Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and the particularly appropriate “For Free” from the then recently released Ladies of the Canyon; and “My Old Man,” “California,” and “A Case of You” from Blue, which would not come out until the summer after the Isle of Wight Festival.
A restoration team has done impressive work with the nearly half-century-old footage in Both Sides Now; the DTS-HD Master sound and widescreen video are terrific. And once you’ve seen the whole film, you can use an onscreen menu to skip the interview segments and play just the music, which leaves no doubt about the size of Mitchell’s talent.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.