Music Songs I'm Obsessed With

Joni Mitchell (and Emma Thompson) Grapple with Disillusion on “Both Sides Now”

The singer-songwriter finds new pain in an old song.

Some people discover new music through Spotify or Apple Music, others through YouTube or SoundCloud, very few on the radio. I apparently discover new music through Emma Thompson.

A few weeks ago, the Oscar-winning actress revealed that her ex-husband Kenneth Branagh’s affair served as the emotional inspiration behind her famous scene in Love, Actually when her character comes to terms with her own marital issues. Having never seen the film before, I went to YouTube to find the clip, both to satisfy my tabloid curiosity and to witness an excellent Emma Thompson performance.

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The scene is largely wordless, with Thompson silently wiping away tears in her bedroom as the devastation of her husband’s betrayal threatens to consume her. Although she is brilliant in the scene, the emotional wallop truly comes from the song playing in the background, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. The Canadian folk legend re-recorded the song – originally released in 1969 – for her 2000 concept album of the same name, supplanting acoustic guitar for a full-blown orchestral arrangement. Also different is Mitchell’s voice; age and health issues transformed her ethereal tone into something earthier, richer.

The changes are stark, but deeply satisfying. Mitchell and her orchestra take their time, letting the melancholy of the lyrics settle in different ways from the original. Naiveté is still at the core of “Both Sides Now,” and the story she tells is the same. The meaning, however, is profoundly changed by her voice’s darker shades and tightened range. Mitchell sings with quiet resignation as she recalls missed opportunity and disappointment. When she stretches into her upper range, she briefly grasps at the passion of youth, before returning to a more mature reality. The arrangement, a sumptuous backdrop of strings and trumpets, echo her recollections beautifully. The genuine ache of Mitchell’s renewed tale of disillusionment, colored by the wisdom of decades of unfulfilling experience, is powerful and irresistible.

It’s no wonder that this beautiful version of a beautiful song accompanies Love, Actually’s centerpiece of heartbreak. Aside from its placement in the plot, it’s unlikely another song exists that perfectly captures the pain and horror of realizing that you’ve wasted your life on someone who wasn’t worth the effort. Emma Thompson and Joni Mitchell, masters that they are, are a powerful combination to explore such a complex emotion, and it’s nice to reaffirm that such exploration is even possible in cultural days like these.

In other words, make a playlist of songs from Emma Thompson movies and you’ll feel better about the world.

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