Joni Mitchell Gets Animated for Christmas in First Music Video for 1971’s ‘River’

An animated river runs through Joni Mitchell’s video oeuvre now, as a 50-year-old song that has been gradually drafted into the holiday music canon, “River,” has just gotten its first music video. The clip made its debut with little time to spare in this “Blue” semicentennial year, premiering two days before Christmas.

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The video is stylized as a series of moving black-and-white water-colors, as it were, only opening up into actual color at the end. There, against Mitchell’s bittersweet “Jingle Bells” instrumental coda, the frozen landscape finally turns a verdant green and the river of the title turns… blue. The clip was directed by Matvey Rezanov, of Skazka Studios.

Despite lyrics set at Christmas time, “River” was little revived in a holiday context in the years and even immediate decades following its 1971 release, but it picked up momentum as a target for melancholy cover versions in the 1990s. Among those who’ve recorded it are Sarah McLachlan, Aimee Mann, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Pentatonix, Cee Lo, Cat Power, Rufus Wainwright, Idina Menzel, Ben Platt, Herbie Hancock, Tracey Thorn, Heart, Beth Orton, Rita Wilson, 98 Degrees, the “Glee” cast, the “Nashville” cast and, of course, Brandi Carlile, who has done full concerts of the entire “Blue” album.

“‘River’ expresses regret at the end of a relationship… but it’s also about being lonely at Christmas time,” Mitchell said in a statement accompanying the video’s release. “A Christmas song for people who are lonely at Christmas! We need a song like that.”

Mitchell was just seen on television this past week being feted at the Kennedy Center Honors, and she’ll be celebrated again at the 2022 MusiCares Person of the Year dinner Jan. 29. The latter event will include performances by Carlile, Taylor, Hancock, Jon Baptiste, Black Pumas, Leon Bridges, Mickey Guyton, Graham Nash and Maggie Rogers.

The latest in a series of boxed sets recounting her career, “Archives Vol. 2 (The Reprise Years 1968–1971),” was released this fall. The first volume in the series, covering the 1963-67 period, is currently up for a Grammy for best historical album.

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