As famous as the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival was for what, in hindsight, was its astonishing lineup (The Doors, Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone, Melanie, Miles Davis), it was every bit as notorious for angry protests and chronic disruption. It was the year that anti-capitalist factions took against the organisers and performers, battering down the barriers erected to prevent non-ticket-holders from trying to see and hear the acts. An unexpected crowd, thought to be in excess of 500,000, had descended on the island.
The ill-will started when performers showed up in a blaze of increasingly elaborate and conspicuous displays of new wealth, from fuck-off sports-cars to Rolls Royces to Donovan’s deluxe antique stagecoach with bevelled windows. It was almost as if the celebs wanted to smear as much of their recently acquired money as possible in the faces of islanders living in relative penury. The situation may have been exacerbated by the heavy-handed presence of authority: “What’s all this peace and love shit if there’s police dogs here?” asks one angry attendee on camera, not unreasonably. This scene was captured by the late Murray Lerner, who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1981 with From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.
Lerner had considerable music festival experience by 1970, having shot aspects of the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1966, the results of which were used to form Festival (1967). Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (Did they really have to shoehorn ‘Both Sides Now’ in there? It’s been already been used as a title or subheading for too many Mitchell-related projects) is the latest and last of Lerner’s Isle of Wight documentaries, having been preceded by titles like Nothing Is Easy: Jethro Tull at the Isle of Wight (2004), Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight Festival (1996) and The Doors: Light at the Isle of Wight (2017). This DVD, now available from Eagle Rock, allows you to watch either the documentary (which splices backstage and audience footage with Mitchell’s performances and Mitchell, years later, speaking about the experience, sitting at the piano with trademark cigarette) or just Mitchell’s set on its own.
Perhaps it makes most sense to start with the documentary which, in any case, still gives you Mitchell’s performances. And what riveting performances they were. Mitchell was a straw-coloured vision, her hair color almost matching her daffodil-hued dress, her face looking uncannily like it does on the self-portrait used for the Clouds album cover.
In a Rolling Stone interview in 1991, Mitchell described herself as being at her most introverted during the Blue era and here, one year earlier, there’s certainly a superficial fragility about her, but it’s prickliness rather than vulnerability; there’s clearly a core of steel within and the slight but unmistakable air of superiority that has sometimes got people’s backs up over the years (although it should be noted that male artists are rarely taken to task for their superciliousness and, anyway, she’s Joni Mitchell – arguably, she is superior). It’s little wonder that she was defensive and touchy in response to a crowd that hollered and hooted and growled, fizzing with menace and bubbling over with outbreaks of jeering and violence. It wasn’t Mitchell who was being heckled, however, but the very festival itself and the pair of promoters, brothers Ray and Ron Folk, whose brainchild it was.
Moving between guitar and piano (at this point, she was stronger on the former, but her piano-playing would develop quickly – over the next few albums, For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, it would come on in leaps and bounds and she’d leave behind rather repetitive and rudimentary arpeggios played by her left hand, her right banging out static chords), she gives the audience selections from Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and the forthcoming Blue, interrupting “Chelsea Morning” by saying, ‘I don’t feel like playing that one.’ Since there are no audience close-ups during “Woodstock”, it’s impossible to tell whether her attempts to get the crowd to join in during the “we are stardust” choruses are successful.
Given the simmering rage against capitalism and money-love that had stirred up elements in the audience, it was brave to the point of foolhardy for Mitchell to give that particular hornets’ nest another quick jab by placing ‘For Free’, a ballad eulogising street musicians who play for pennies, quite early on in her set. She has never gone in for false humility and her response to applause, instead of going in for the ‘who, me? Why, thank you’ routine, is to look rather impassive as if to suggest ‘Yes, you may applaud me. I deserve it.’ Barely a quarter of the way into her set, there’s a medical emergency – a classic ‘bad acid’ moment of the kind that defined festivals of the late ’60s and early ’70s. A flailing, sickly man is quickly hurried from the crowd to some part of the sprawling ‘backstage’ area where medical attention is arranged.
Another disruption occurs when Yogi Joe, a man sitting, apparently peaceably, near Mitchell’s piano, attempts to grab her microphone to make a vague political speech in a febrile, frothing-at-the-mouth fashion. He says something about ‘desolation row’ (this was the name given to the area where non ticket-holding protesters had set up camp) before heavies quickly bundle him off stage. Lerner’s camera catches up with him in an area of parked vehicles where attempts are being made to calm him down. He talks about the commercialisation of music and his anger at the fences and barriers.
When Mitchell resumes her set, which by this point has been interrupted three of four times, she is on the brink of tears and, prior to ‘My Old Man’, has clearly had enough. “Give us some respect,” she demands. Oddly enough, the more haughtily she addresses the crowd, the more they respond positively to her. It’s almost as if they’re recalcitrant children. When, earlier on, she implores them gently for help, they simply act up all the more. But when she talks down to them, like a stern, forbidding head-teacher, they get the message, finally shutting up enough to let her get through ‘A Case of You’ (for which she brings out the dulcimer), ‘California’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘Both Sides Now’, all of them bravura performances.
Lerner’s documentary is a fascinating historical document, not only because it captures one of the world’s finest singer/songwriters at a pivotal point in her artistic evolution, but also because it pinpoints the time when all the last vestiges of equality between audience and performer were destroyed. (Joni, interviewed years later about the festival, describes her audience as something inhuman and animalistic – ‘the beast’.) From this point onwards, rock performers would vanish behind increasingly elaborate, impenetrable layers of security and PR. The Isle of Wight 1970 festival was like a kind of broken Woodstock.