Folk music icon Joan Baez, who’s now 82, came of age just as musicians’ live gigs were often recorded and thereby preserved for the record, virtues that are used to advantage in Joan Baez I Am A Noise. An up-close, intimate and mostly frank account of a career that arched across more than 60 years of musical and political expression while countless trends came and went, this elaborate documentary navigates adroitly through the professional and the personal aspects of a very full life, one marked by far more good fortune than bad. Whether you’ve followed her career for decades or are just now discovering her, the life under scrutiny is undeniably impressive and ceaselessly engaging.
The film, which premiered in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival, is prefaced by a knowing remark from Gabriel Garcia Marquez — “Everyone has three lives: the public, the private, and the secret.” One can fairly say that the documentary impressively handles the first component, reveals some frank examples of the second and allows fleeting glimpses of the third. One of the first things we see is a roomful of meticulously maintained vaults and drawers containing elements pertinent to Baez’s peripatetic life. As she points out, she’s been on the road for most of her 82 years and, even though she looks and acts considerably younger, her vocal abilities gradually weakened to the point where, after a final tour in 2018-19, she decided enough was enough.
“I have to be the center of attention,” Baez admits upfront, and she certainly got her wish. The daughter of a brilliant Stanford scientist who co-invented the x-ray microscope, young Joan suffered from anxiety and an inferiority complex which nonetheless didn’t stop her from becoming famous while still in her late teens. It all happened so quickly; after initial 1958 gigs at Boston’s Club 47, Baez was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival the following summer, which instantly put her securely on the musical map. Her first album was a smash, as was her next, and she was summoned to Carnegie Hall before she was 18. “For whatever reason, it was the right voice at the right time,” she admits.
It was an amazing ascent, to be sure, arguably too much for someone that young to handle. But even at the earliest age, Baez’s dedication to social issues was evident, which brought her early on to link up with, then traumatizingly split from, the very young Bob Dylan, of whom there is considerable amusing footage. She became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement as it proceeded through the 1960s; her attachment to social causes was built into her DNA, forever constant and felt.
Even for those who might feel they’ve seen more than enough footage of the counter-culture 1960s, there is still much here that’s unfamiliar, on top of which is a very particular insider’s view of the political music scene at the time. No matter the big events of the era, the film sticks closely to how Baez, her family and assorted friends experienced it. We see Baez at the 1965 Montgomery protest march and one in Washington two years later, learn of her younger sister’s problems due to being constantly in Joan’s shadow, of the latter’s aspiration to be like Gandhi and her determination to help save the world.
The film is rewarding for revealing a major cultural personality in a satisfying fullness. Of course there is more to the story than a single film can cover, but still no sense of anything being deliberately avoided or hidden. You come away feeling that you have a pretty good sense of a life lived in full.
One constantly feels an abundance — of talent, engagement, emotions, energy and connections with all kinds of people. When, toward the end, you behold Baez at long last hanging things up after a lifetime of creativity, innumerable accolades, involvement with countless productive and talented people and exposure to worldly experiences the likes of which most people will never have, you have a strong sense of what life can be like for a famous and talented artist.
Directed by Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle (who also edited) and Karen O’Connor, the film veritably bulges with material that they were clearly determined to use, as well as a sense of much more they would have dearly liked to include. There are some indulgences, but the balance between the subject’s public and private lives is well maintained. As the film’s subtitle suggests, she certainly did make a lot of noise.