How does an icon in music and activism become an icon? In Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle’s new documentary, entitled JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE, Ms. Baez does a deep dive into her past, revealing much she has previously kept private.
Full disclosure, I have been a Joan Baez fan forever. My sisters and I started singing three-part harmony together when I was still quite young. Her folk songs --- and those she sang by Bob Dylan --- were many of our favorites. You can love and admire someone from afar, not knowing much of their personal life.
Of course, as most everyone knows, she and Dylan were an item. What JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE makes clear is that Joan had achieved early fame before Dylan --- and he definitely broke her heart. Beginning at age 18, Joan’s rise to stardom was meteoric. By age 21 she was on the cover of “Time” magazine, sporting the moniker “Queen of Folk”. Her otherworldly soprano voice with the lilting trill was unmatched --- as was her beauty.
O’Connor is a personal friend of Joan’s. She and her partners have made other documentaries exploring a multitude of issues over 20 years, but JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE is their first biography. They embedded themselves in Joan’s final tour with the caveat that Ms. Baez would have no control over the film and its content.
JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE is completely unvarnished --- and at times, rather dark. Instead of celebrity testimonials, the filmmakers incorporate old, newly discovered home movies, photographs, therapy tapes and audio tapes of letters Joan had sent home to her parents while she was on the road performing. It’s a treasure trove of material that gives specific insights into her family, her sisters and their struggles, as well as her own bouts of depression and mental health issues.
Joan’s activism is well documented, but O’Connor and her team do a marvelous job of showcasing her commitment to political nonviolence. The clips of her singing at various protests, marching along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other prominent allies, remind the audience of her deep and unwavering dedication to the pressing social topics of the time.
Ms. Baez was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 and honored by the Kennedy Center in 2021. Though she may be at the end of her musical career, Joan is busy with other things like her artwork, which is amazing. But --- it will always be about that voice --- that breathtaking voice.
Opinion: See It Now!
For those out there too young to even have an inkling about who Joan Baez is, know this --- she was among the most popular folk singers of an era that featured household names like Peter, Paul & Mary and soon-to-be icon Bob Dylan. Now there is a documentary of her life after 60 years in entertainment that reveals her inner struggles as well as praising her selflessness in promoting nonviolence in the world.
In JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE even long-time fans are reminded of her incredible early success, like being on the cover of “Time” magazine --- albeit as a painted figure strumming her guitar while barefoot --- at the tender age of twenty-one. Now 82, Baez reveals the personal struggles she endured for so many years. Although proclaiming how she always loved to be the center of attention, she suffered panic attacks and physical illness in the midst of her fame, almost as if she had a fear of success.
She opens up about her relationships with her two sisters, both of whom are deceased. The younger one, Mimi, an aspiring performer herself, always resented Joan’s fame. She died of cancer at age 56. Joan opines in the doc about possible physical abuse on the part of their father with Mimi and herself, but admits her memories are foggy.
Those fans who love Joan’s music may be disappointed in the lack of songs on display in the film, but the trio of directors never intended to make a typical music documentary about Joan’s life. Glaringly omitted is any rendition of her smash “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. But we do see her sing “Diamonds and Rust”. Even now Baez has an easy voice to listen to based on her last appearances several years ago.
We are privy to some fascinating archival footage of Joan with Martin Luther King, and an early romantic link with a young Bob Dylan, whose career she jump-started by inviting him to perform at her concerts. Later in her life she is seen with Bill and Hillary Clinton, filmmaker Michael Moore and others.
Directors Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle purposely omitted interviews with celebrities outside of Joan’s immediate circle to preserve the intimacy of the story they wanted to present. Thankfully they do showcase Joan’s exquisite talent as an artist, specifically her paintings of animals.
Still beautiful as an octogenarian, Joan Baez will be remembered as a wonderful musical talent and a lifelong activist for peace in the world. And by the end of her film, it is apparent she has achieved a personal peace of her own.
Opinion: See It Now!