Joan Baez: I Am a Noise
(USA, 113 min)
Dir. Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian premiere)
As a teenager, Joan Baez quickly gained local popularity, filling the famous Club 47 in Cambrige, Massachusetts whenever she was on the bill. Then, in 1958, she was catapulted into fame after a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Just 18-years-old at the time, it wasn’t long before her crystalline voice and effortless strumming took the world by storm.
Now in her eighties, Baez is the subject of a much-anticipated documentary. Directed by Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle, Joan Baez: I Am a Noise follows Baez on the road during her farewell tour in 2019 as she reflects on her childhood, personal life, political activism, and a music career that spans six decades. Interspersed throughout the film, Baez holds nothing back as she goes through an entire storage locker full of a life’s worth of journals, photographs, artwork, home videos, and tape recordings.
As with most biographical documentaries about musicians, there is plenty of crowd-pleasing footage of both well-known and rarely-seen Baez performances that will delight her biggest fans and initiate those unfamiliar with her talent. In particular, there is a stand-out clip of her and Bob Dylan singing “It Ain’t Me Babe” that elicits awe and nostalgia. Of course, Dylan is a bit of a touchy subject here, although she does speak of him rather fondly, but to be witness to their undeniable, explosive chemistry is truly something else.
Baez is anxious and introspective by nature, often feeling as though she is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. She is open about her lifelong struggle with mental health, suffering debilitating panic attacks from as far back as she can remember. Stardom didn’t help as it just left her feeling empty and aimless. In the film, many of these confessions are told over concert footage, adding a layer of complexity to what looked so natural and rewarding to her.
One-half Mexican, Baez endured racist remarks throughout her adolescence, which made her keenly aware of social issues and collective responsibility from an early age. Most notably, she was heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement and vocally opposed the Vietnam War. These are the only two causes mentioned in the film, but given that she has an entire life full of activism, including benefit concerts for LGBTQ rights in the 1970s and 1990s, this part of her story feels glossed over and rushed.
On the other hand, Baez’s prolific diary entries, drawings, and paintings provide a treasure trove for the filmmakers and are artfully weaved into the documentary. These primary sources tell a story all their own, illuminating Baez’s rich inner world and creative spirit to great effect.
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise isn’t really a traditional biographical film, which may disappoint some people. While it does have some of those expected elements, Baez had a different kind of film in mind, shifting focus to what matters most to her: her long path to healing and personal growth. The documentary is an honest look at Baez coming to terms with her life and making peace with it, while accepting the limitations of her aging body. A true revolutionary, she has always done things her own way, so why would a film about her be any different?
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise screens at Hot Docs 2023.
Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.
Update (Oct. 2): Joan Baez: I Am a Noise opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Oct. 6.