Joan Baez I Am a Noise

Joan Baez I Am a Noise

2023, NR, 113 min. Directed by Miri Navasky, Maeve O'Boyle, Karen O'Connor.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 29, 2023

From the start, this intimate documentary about octogenarian musician and activist Joan Baez recognizes the slippery nature of autobiographical truth. Early in Joan Baez I Am a Noise, a remarkably vital Baez acknowledges how we often selectively mythologize ourselves when looking back on our lives. “If I could write my entire history, whether it has anything to do with the facts, nobody would ever know, because we remember what we want to remember,” she declares.

That’s a shrewd admission coming from a grownup child of the Sixties. The film could have easily been assembled as a by-the-numbers testimonial to a worthy legacy, but its openhearted subject wanted something much more personal, something akin to a healing experience. Directors Miri Navasky, Maeve O'Boyle, and Karen O'Connor signal this desire right away with an opening quotation from Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who observed that we all lead three lives: the public one, the private one, and the secret one. And that’s what you generally get here, with the last of those lives stirring up feelings that will likely discomfort some.

Born in 1941 to two immigrant parents – her father from Mexico, her mother (also named Joan) from Scotland – Baez became famous overnight at the age of 18 after her ethereal soprano enthralled the crowd at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. A little less than three years later, her likeness, as painted by Russell Hoban, appeared barefoot on the cover of Time, an acoustic guitar on her lap. Raised in the Quaker faith, Baez strongly gravitated toward civil rights, social justice, and antiwar activism early on, here confessing an “addiction” to her causes in those days. On the gossipy side, in her early 20s she began a five-year relationship with a then-relatively unknown Bob Dylan, whose burgeoning career she nurtured until he unceremoniously dumped her in 1965 upon experiencing a bigger blast of fame. (The bemused expression on Baez’s face when discussing the breakup, which she confesses left her heartbroken for a good while, is priceless. She appears to have gotten over him.) But her professional success and notoriety did little to stop the roller coaster of anxiety and depression that have vexed her since her early teen years. Those same mental health struggles also tormented her look-alike younger sister Mimi, which the film posits is no coincidence.

Joan Baez I Am a Noise largely relies on a storage facility of curated and catalogued memorabilia (family home movies, audiotapes, journals, drawings, photographs, film footage, letters) maintained by Baez’s late mother, who passed away 10 years ago. Strangely enough, the first time Baez herself peruses its contents occurs during the filming of the documentary, even though the material meticulously preserved by Joan Sr. goes back decades. Access to this archive must have been a godsend to the filmmakers. The film also incorporates a good chunk of footage from the singer-songwriter’s purported 2018 Fare Thee Well retirement tour, though overall the documentary oddly provides only glimpses of Baez’s musical performances across her 65-year career. But it’s the last half-hour’s revelation of the repressed emotions and memories uncovered in Baez’s midlife therapy sessions, accompanied by the voice and written correspondence of her late father, Albert, that will stick with you most, even if you have doubts about the efficacy of such psychological treatment. Sure, it’s not terribly satisfying resolutionwise because you’re still left with as many questions as answers in the end. But that’s the thing about looking back on your life at a relatively late age. So many gaps left unfilled.

Read our interview with Joan Baez and director Karen O'Connor at austinchronicle.com/screens.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Joan Baez I Am a Noise, Miri Navasky, Maeve O'Boyle, Karen O'Connor

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