Joan Baez: I Am A Noise is a beautifully crafted project by no less than three directors that fittingly reveals the multi-faceted persona of one of America’s most iconic folk performers.
The triptych nature of this production is further reflected in the opening quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez – “Everyone has three lives, the public, the private and the secret.” The latter is the selling point here as we are treated to Joan’s deepest, most private thoughts via intimate interviews, access to letters and diary entries from her childhood, rise to fame and journey to her autumn years.
The opening images of Joan, sixty years into her career, musing over archive materials sets the scene for the film’s journey, delivered as a retrospective from her home and various hotel rooms. She looks back with fondness of memories but equally so with regret and melancholy, revealing at times years of confusion, anxiety and depression.
Footage of Joan on her farewell tour of America shot as part of the documentary, finds her as powerful and engaging as ever, particularly in the smaller venues, and archive footage from her early days shows a character that, whilst hardly lacking in confidence, often looks like a rabbit in the headlights, barely believing her fate.
1950s home movies show beautiful glimpses of Southern Americana, almost idyllic, until Joan begins to talk about her struggle as a child to find meaning in her existence. That said, her presence is so powerful that her sister, Pauline, talks about how she had to move away from Joan – “to be invisible.”
Joan talks openly about her relationships, first with girlfriend Kim, and then with Bob Dylan. Whilst we still do not really discover how deep the relationship with Dylan went, this was a deep friendship, and there was a strong bond of love between them.
This footage is beautiful, particularly at the 1963 Martin Luther King rally where Joan and Bob (referred to here as “A tattered little shambles of a human being”) perform “It Ain’t Me Babe” in front of an enormous crowd.
Her impression of “Bobby” Dylan doing an impression of herself is fun and shows yet another side to the artist at the peak of her career.
The footage from the MLK rally kickstarts a sequence that shows Joan as an activist, alongside King and James Baldwin, “Non-violent action was what I was born for,” and we see the multiple times she spoke out despite the dangers of arrest. There is moving footage of a recent gig in a church in Selma, retracing her steps from the Montgomery Civil Rights march.
Stating, “I wanted to be like Gandhi,” we see footage of Joan setting up the Institute for the study of Non-violence.
Whilst she was spearheading the way, proving that music could change so many attitudes towards race and peace, she was still battling with more personal demons and relationships.
Archive film of her in London, hanging out with her beloved Bob, finds her distraught as she realizes that fame has changed him beyond her recognition – “Dylan broke my heart… it was so shattering.”
Straddling her own musical career, her political activities and her relationships – we see her overwhelmed and growing tired – “I wish I didn’t live life like a rollercoaster, but I do,” she writes in a letter to her parents, “It always leaves me so weary.”
Her marriage to David Harris, a kindred spirit in terms of commitment to protest, leads to imprisonment for both – “I would sing, he would speak.”
After her disappointment in the rock and roll lifestyle of Dylan, it is heartbreaking to see Joan similarly lose focus as she too becomes dependent on drugs. By 1975, her songs lacked the political edge that they once had, and Joan admits, “My career plunged into the abyss.” Painful footage of her singing a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” at an Amnesty International gig is the final nail in the coffin. Joan realizes this and gets back on the horse, leading to more creative and hopeful years ahead.
Towards the end of the film, more footage of the “Farewell Tour” fills us with hope and shows Joan much more at ease than perhaps she has been in the past and we see an artist who still knows how to charm an audience and hold them in the palm of her hand.
The documentary is a triumph and an invaluable insight into an extremely important figure, not just in music but in American history.
For more information on the documentary, visit Joan’s official website.
Director: Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle
Producer: Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky
Starring: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan
Production Company: Mead Street Films
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: October 6, 2023
Run Time: 113 minutes