THE STORY – Interviews, home movies, diaries, and audio recordings provide insight into the life and career of iconic folk singer Joan Baez.
THE CAST – Joan Baez, Hanna Shykind & Joan Baez Sr.
THE TEAM – Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle & Karen O’Connor (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes
Documentaries about icons often just want to focus on the good times and maybe only slightly get into the bad. “Joan Baez: I Am A Noise,” however, isn’t afraid to discuss the uncomfortable moments of the legendary singer’s life.
With her otherworldly voice that defined a generation, Baez has had quite the life. From experiencing abuse and bullying at the hands of loved ones and classmates at a young age to healing hearts throughout the world with her music, there’s a lot to unpack with this woman. Directors Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle, and Karen O’Connor attempt to get to all of it in this two-hour documentary about love, life, loss, regret, and moving on.
A quote from Gabriel García Márquez sets the tone: “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” Baez, now 82, is game to let us into her private and secret lives. We begin as she embarks on a journey to say goodbye to live performing with her Fare Thee Well tour in 2018 and 2019. She seems very much at peace at this point in her life, and her interactions with fans are a joy to watch. She’s down to earth and eager to hug and kiss everyone who comes up to her. Off-stage, she’s a carefree spirit who’s not afraid to walk outside without shoes on or to start dancing in the middle of the street with drummers.
The Baez we see today has lived and learned. But, as expected, she wasn’t always like this. Through old family videos and photographs, letters she wrote to loved ones, and animated diary entries and drawings, viewers get to know the pain and beauty behind some of her most pivotal moments in life, giving us that raw and honest look we hope for in documentaries about stars.
The film is substantially dedicated to her mental health struggles that stem from a young age and how fame escalated them. She admits it was a jarring transition for her to go from a little girl who didn’t have much confidence, particularly one who was picked on due to her Mexican heritage, to a young woman who was renowned for her voice and talents. That admiration is something so many long for, and Baez thought she needed all of it until she realized she was becoming the person she didn’t want to be. Even today, she struggles with the dark moments and thoughts that can knock her off her feet for quite some time. It’s always refreshing to see someone be this open and honest about their health struggles, especially when they don’t look their best, or they’re advised to avoid those taboo topics. It reminds us that, despite their superstar status, they’re real people who hurt as much as all of us.
As she grew in popularity, that began affecting some of the most important relationships in her life. There was a rivalry between her and her sister Mimi Fariña, also a musician, with her then-husband Richard Fariña, which put quite a strain on their relationship. Baez also introduced the world to Bob Dylan, leading to invigorating duets like “It Ain’t Me Babe” and a three-year romance. But, it abruptly ended and led to heartache for Baez and a couple of memorable songs about the fling. These glimpses into her personal relationships breathe a newfound life into the story and almost could have entirely been the subject of this docu-film.
As far as music documentaries go, “Joan Baez: I Am A Noise” doesn’t focus much on her songs. That might be disappointing for some, but it gives the film more time to explore the connections and events that led to certain albums, which ultimately is more interesting. We see her work in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and later the anti-Vietnam War movement, all of which inspired her protest and social justice songs.
But, like many documentaries about icons, the directors never press their subject hard enough or go beyond what they reveal themselves. Baez recounts all these moments, but sometimes they feel like just the tip of the iceberg, such as her drug addiction to Quaaludes, the strained relationships in her life, or her involvement in all these causes. There’s always more to say than just “I did this” and move on from it, so some moments feel unsatisfying. These movies also often put their subjects on pedestals rather than examine their complexities or offer a cultural critique of them. Where are the difficult questions about her relationships, her involvement in their downfall, or her motives behind joining causes? It’s understandable if the directors didn’t want to cross a line with their subject, but it’s also okay to apply a more critical lens, especially when the star wants to be open about their life.
Regardless, “Joan Baez: I Am A Noise” is a solid documentary on a legendary singer who unveils more than we likely ever thought we’d learn from her. There’s a lot of heart and soul in the film, both from the directors and with Baez letting people into her life, leading to an enjoyable watch.