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Joan Baez: I Am a Noise

Directed by Miri Navasky, Maeve O'Boyle, and Karen O'Connor
Produced by Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor
With: Joan Baez
Cinematography: Wolfgang Held, Timothy Grucza, and Ben McCoy
Editing: Maeve O'Boyle
Music: Sarah Lynch
Runtime: 113 min
Release Date: 03 November 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color: Color

The legendary folk singer, songwriter, musician, and political activist Joan Baez is the subject of a most unusual biographical documentary by directors Miri Navasky, Karen O’Connor, and Maeve O’Boyle. One or more of these filmmakers are clearly long-time friends of their subject, which can often impede an insightful documentary, especially when the subject is still alive and concerned about their legacy. But it should probably come as no surprise that a doc profile that Baez would participate in would not end up a typical celebrity puff piece or a fawning work of hero worship. The filmmakers apparently set out to make a fairly standard concert film that would chronicle the 79-year-old singer’s 2018 Fare Thee Well concert tour, which featured her formerly estranged son as part of the band. But during the long process of putting the film together over COVID, the singer gave the directors the key to a storage unit she'd never ventured into that held fascinating insights into her past. In addition to photos, press materials, journals, childhood artwork, and letters, they found an endless cache of audio tapes from years of Joan's therapy sessions. 

It is not made clear who maintained this storage space, though it seems it was her parents, but that lack of specificity is apt for this film, which delves deep into the psyche and personality of an unusual celebrity who remains somewhat enigmatic by the end of the movie. In many ways, Joan is an open book, offering not only carte blanche access to the ghosts of her past locked away in this archive but also deeply personal reflections in interviews about her feelings of inadequacy and failure, bouts with depression and mental illness, and her inability to form long-lasting relationships. Because of old cassette tapes, we get to know the young Joan and hear her "in conversation" with the older Joan. Because of how long the film took to make, we get contemporary footage of Joan interacting with members of her family who are all now gone—there is footage shot for this project of Joan caring for her ailing mother, who died in 2013, and interviews with her older sister Pauline, who passed away in 2016.

At times, the doc follows the standard musical biography structure, and we get insights into chapters familiar to both Baez fans and people who only know her as a name and a distinctive, often mocked, vibrato-laden voice. She comments on her early childhood and how her instant celebrity complicated life for her and her sisters. We, of course, spend time on her relationship with Bob Dylan, the early joy of their Greenwich Village years, and the heartbreak of not only being ghosted by him but of having her fame—and that of nearly everyone in the folk music revival movement—eclipsed by his individualistic talent and ambition. We hear about why activism became so central to her life, how her marriage to anti-war protester David Harris left her a single mother when he was imprisoned for draft dodging, and how being in psychotherapy since her teenage years has helped her deal with chronic panic attacks and stomach issues.

Surprisingly, it's the family dynamics that provide the film with its most fascinating yet mysterious aspects. All three Baez sisters led complicated lives. Her younger sister Mimi followed Joan into music and also became quite famous at a very tender age with her husband, Richard Fariña, but her career was short-lived. Mimi Fariña was also frequently in various forms of psychotherapy, including the now-debunked recovered-memory techniques that were in vogue during the 1990s. This therapy trend, which was intertwined with the Satanic Panic paranoia of that decade, used hypnosis to convince countless people they had been sexually abused by their parents, doing tremendous damage to many lives. I Am a Noice alludes to incidents of abuse both Joan and Mimi had with their father, scientist Albert Baez. We not only hear audio recordings from Joan under hypnosis, we also hear letters she's written to her parents, both of whom strenuously denied these claims while they were alive. 

While never avoiding answers to questions, Joan is only as clear in discussing the memories recovered via therapy as her recollections were, which is not very. She believes something went down but has no idea the extent of it. If there were sexual abuse back in childhood, it would explain a great many things about how all three sisters grew up and the issues they struggled with in adulthood, but Baez can only focus so much on the past. Those viewers wanting specific answers to unknowable questions will be frustrated the film doesn't delve deeper into whether or not these recovered memories were "implanted" by a therapist or if they really occurred, and if they did, what exactly happened. However, the inability of the filmmakers, the audience, and Joan herself to fully understand her complete history is part of what makes this film so fascinating.  

There is surprisingly little music for a movie that started out as a concert film, but what we get is quite moving. Baez is in fine voice, and her solo sets and numbers with her small band resonate with us. We witness her connecting with audiences and feel the intimacy and power of one of the few farewell tours that might actually be a farewell tour. Not because of the artist's lack of stamina or ability but because she may no longer feel the need to perform. In the film, Joan states that her 70s were her happiest decade, and, like everything she says in the film, this comes across as an honest and self-aware statement. Baez's life has not been an easy one, but it has been a remarkable and meaningful journey. 

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Joan Baez is the subject of a most unusual and fascinating biographical documentary that delves deep into the history, personality, and psyche of the distinctive folksinger and activist yet leaves many unknowable questions unanswered.