Joan Baez: I Am a Noise
Directed by Karen O’Connor, Maeve O’Boyle, and Miri Navasky
NR 1 hour, 53 minutes
Ethereal yet robust and unmistakable, the voice of storied folksinger Joan Baez was quieted on July 28, 2019, when her farewell concert tour concluded at Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain, 60 years after her 1959 Newport Folk Festival debut. Conducted when she was 78, the US leg of this tour provides the backdrop for Baez’s reflection about her remarkable journey as an artist, activist, mother, wife, sister, and daughter in the documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise. (The film takes its title from a phrase that a 13-year-old Joan once used in her diary.)
The very confessional documentary, likely to engender controversy and significantly alter viewers’ perceptions of its subject, premiered in New York last month and opened widely on Friday, October 13. Karen O’Connor, Maeve O’Boyle, and Miri Navasky direct the film. (Navasky is the daughter of fabled Nation editor Victor Navasky.)
The cinema verité exploration begins with Baez working with voice coach Sarah Schneider as she readies for the tour. Soon after, the filmmakers introduce an unusual cinematic narrative device: a therapist’s voice guides us through a memory exercise designed for Baez. Somewhat disorienting and puzzling, this use of psychotherapy signals that the documentarians don’t intend to make a typical biopic.
The fact that Bob Dylan doesn’t appear in the film until the 35-minute mark most clearly demonstrates this intention. The signature romance of her life, Baez’s complicated, fraught, tumultuous relationship with the fabled songwriter and singular artist of his generation has been much chronicled and speculated about, but more than 60 years after they met its true meaning remains largely inscrutable. To its detriment, I Am a Noise devotes maybe 10 minutes to it.
Baez says Dylan was “a tattered little shamble of a human being” when they first met at his debut at Gerde’s Folk City in New York on April 11, 1961, opening for legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker. She says of Dylan, “I was just stoned on that talent.”
I Am a Noise doesn’t pay enough attention to the singer’s activism, animated by her Quaker commitment to nonviolence. As she says in the superior, if more conventional 2009 film produced for the PBS American Masters series, Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, “I’m the happiest and healthiest when I’m very mixed up in politics. I know music plays a secondary role.”
Viewers will also wish they knew more Baez’s and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “mutual admiration,” as Jesse Jackson described it, as well as her involvement in the civil rights movement, most famously at the March on Washington in 1963 and the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. We also want to know more about more about her opposition to the Vietnam War and her brief, troubled marriage to the leader of the Vietnam War draft-resistance movement, David Harris.
Psychotherapy consumes the film’s third act. At 50, abusing Quaaludes and with her career floundering, Baez determines there’s “something monstrous” inside her that she must confront—and it takes “therapy three days a week to haul it out.” During these sessions, she says, “many different people emerged.” And these multiple personalities engendered “icky feelings, exhausting feelings” concerning her father Albert’s abusive nature.
Her younger sister, Mimi—a folksinger in her own right—recalls a moment that prompted Joan to go into therapy. As an adolescent, while Mimi was hanging laundry on a line, she says her father forcefully kissed her on the lips. Joan believes Mimi’s accusations are “solid” but acknowledges she “can’t prove anything” about Albert.
Still photographs and family home movies convey a happy, loving, close Baez family, which doesn’t necessarily mean appearances don’t deceive. In recorded phone messages, Albert doesn’t come across as an angrily defiant, but as someone who wants to understand his daughter’s pain. He died in 2007 at the age of 94.
Expecting an artistic portrait and not psychotherapy, viewers may not opt to accompany Baez on such a difficult, intimate journey. They’d prefer to hear more of that magnificent, transcendent voice, which reminds them of what Jesse Jackson said of her movement days: “She was with us and among us, and yet she was Joan Baez.” ♦
Chris Byrd writes from Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in America, Sojourners, and the National Catholic Reporter.