Folk singer reflects on her life in documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise
There are a variety of mythical figures who came out of the mid-20th century music scene, including Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and others. Of those people/bands, Joan Baez is the only one who has achieved that status not necessarily through her own songs, but through her soulful interpretations of the songs of others, as well as her activism.
The unique place Baez holds in music history, and history in general, is explored in the new documentary, Joan Baez: I Am a Noise. Unlike some films where filmmakers interview a variety of people to talk about a particular subject, this film is almost entirely focused on Baez looking back on her own life, taking stock of her legacy, and trying to decide what the last stage of her life will entail.
The film’s three directors – Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle, and Karen O’Connor – load the nearly two-hour film with the usual but still necessary deep-dive into Baez’s biography, including her breakout performance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, her singing at the 1963 March on Washington (where she started a brief-but-intense relationship with Dylan), and her deep involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
They’re interested in her life in full, of course, so in addition to her more public moments, much of the film delves into Baez’s often-complicated family life. Growing up a Quaker and half-Mexican, it’s fair to say that Baez developed her social consciousness from a young age, influenced by her parents and racism she personally experienced.
There is a smattering of animated sequences that detail Baez’s writing throughout her life in diaries and letters; it’s here where the film gets its title, a reference to her constantly singing and dancing as a youngster, but easily transposed to her defiant protests later in life. It also takes on yet another meaning in the film’s final act when she talks about abuse she and her sisters believe their parents inflicted upon them.
The film goes back and forth between giving her biography and showing her in modern times, both at home and during her “Fare Thee Well” tour in 2019. The latter is a rare glimpse at what it’s like to be an aging singer, as she grapples not only with the idea of not being as famous as she once was, but also that her voice has changed significantly over the years.
Certain parts of the film feel truly insightful, with Baez opening up both about her personal and professional life; the revelation of a relationship with a woman in the early 1960s is notable given the time in which it happened. Other segments are more difficult to reconcile; her talking about using Quaaludes in the ‘70s is given such brief mention that it’s curious that the filmmakers decided to include it at all.
But the film ultimately succeeds because of who Baez is and was, a staunch advocate for social justice and someone always willing to stand up for her principles. You may not be able to name a single one of her original songs, but the name Joan Baez still resonates because of how she used her voice to try to make the world a better place.
Joan Baez: I Am a Noisescreens seven times October 20-22 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.