Reel Life: Flick Pix
Joan Baez in JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Albert Baez. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
You know her unmistakable voice, now find out what was really going through her mind
By Nora Lee Mandel
Joan Baez I Am A Noise
Directed by Miri Navasky, Maeve O'Boyle, and Karen O’Connor
Produced by Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor
USA. 113 mins. Not Rated
Release by Magnolia Pictures on October 6 in New York, October 13 in Los Angeles, and additional cities
As a fan of Joan Baez since my older sister brought home the first self-titled albums of traditional folk songs, this intimate “Behind the Music” dive into Baez’s life and mind meaningfully adds to a fan’s appreciation of her accomplishments and 60-year career. On the road of her farewell tour in 2018, Baez’s chronological telling of what was really going on is illustrated by her incredible archive of letters, audio tapes, home movies, photographs, and drawings turned into animation, as well as comments by her sisters, son, and parents.
Her family background is key, including that her attractive parents were committed Quakers. The archival footage and photographs are amazing, playful documentation of how her physicist father Albert moved to academic institutions around the world, and took his wife Joan Sr., and his three close daughters, Pauline, Joanie, and Mimi, traveling to show them society’s inequalities: “As a sensitive kid, I internalized it all.” They were singing pop tunes together all the time.
She wasn’t really aware she was Mexican until she was in junior high when they settled in the San Francisco area, and she got called names. In high school, she pulled out a guitar and sang at lunch time in order to be the center of attention. Baez now reveals that she happily performed to fight off crippling anxiety attacks and struggles at school. She began years of therapy, but was embarrassed to admit that to any friends, and never felt it was getting to the root cause of her problems.
Similarly, she preferred singing in Harvard Square to attending college, and getting a regular gig in 1958 at Club 47 brought her startling clear soprano voice to immediate audience and critical notice. She and her family were surprised, and they were more than a bit jealous, at her “easy” earnings. She is seen being introduced to the Newport Folk Festival audience by Theodore Bikel in 1959 – and at age 18 she was famous, for her “Mary Madonna” looks as much as her voice. Baez now philosophizes on fame and celebrity: “I was the right voice at the right time.” Her older sister retreated from her, and her younger sister wanted to compete, so turned from dance to singing with her husband Richard Fariña.
Meanwhile, Joan struggled to keep her mental and spiritual breakdown from showing. At 22 she had to take a year off, and was helped by falling in love, with a woman. Until she felt called to participate in the 1963 March on Washington. She still tears up at the memory of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Clips are included of her performing solo on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and with Bob Dylan.
She was drawn “to mix music and politics”, but was frustrated she didn’t have the songs or words to express her feelings – until she heard Dylan’s as his lyrics “spouted out”. She is very frank about her relationship with Dylan – and in the footage and photographs of them together it is striking how young they both look – and happy on stages together, as she first took him along on her tour. When she now muses “We were kids together”, it seems to be a reference to co-executive producer/friend Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids.
Joan became fully committed to nonviolent action, founding an institute (now known as the Resource Center for Nonviolence), and stepped into the civil rights movement. She joined the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Her farewell tour stops there, with backstage reunions. She thought then she was going to save the world.
By 1966, there were more personal problems. Joan accompanying Dylan on his tour of England (immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back) was “a nightmare,” as he became more famous. (There’s a clip of Dylan telling an interviewee he has “nobody special” in his life.) She admits she was shattered, with a broken heart. Then Mimi’s husband died in a motorcycle accident. Both sisters fell into darkness. Joan now describes how she’s learned to plan around her episodes of euphoria in concerts followed by bouts of depression. (Relaxion exercises intoned by her therapist are heard throughout the film, though they remind me of the old Alan Watts radio lectures.)
She threw herself into political activities, particularly against the VietNam War, met young movement leader David Harris, lived with him on a commune, and married him before his arrest. She blames her mental state for their break-up more than his 14-month prison term, while she struggled to be a good mother to their baby Gabriel. Now she and her son are close, as he plays guitar, and other instruments, in her touring band.
Through causes and a best-selling album, the 1970’s for her culminated in the drug-fueled ”crazy circus” of The Rolling Thunder Revue (See A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese on Netflix.) Years on quaaludes followed, that she tried to hide, on tour and from her family. This is the closest the documentary gets to a more conventional music icon bio-doc, like David Crosby: Remember My Name.
Then Mimi called about her realizations in therapy, that led Joan to try and retrieve her own memories. Joan delves into her subconscious through drawings. These are animated on screen as she explains what each reveals about herself and her relationship with her father. These disturbing discoveries led to their long estrangement. I don’t think these intense memories were covered either in the October 2009 American Masters episode on PBS ”How Sweet the Sound”, filmed by Mary Wharton, nor in her memoir And A Voice To Sing With, originally published in 1987.
By age 50, she was trying to forgive, as each family member fell ill around her. Though her ”demons” still come and go, she counts as success her ”diminishing panic attacks and phobias”. Working with a vocal coach to exercise her voice muscles before any high notes are gone completely (and she’s seen doing plenty of other physical exercises at her lovely California home with gardens and a pool), this decade as she turned 80 is now her favorite.
The last time I saw Joan Baez perform live was at Central Park’s Summerstage and I was surprised that the audience was only half long-time fans, who preferred to sit. Evidently, she was used to having half her audience be young people, who preferred to stand, and even pogo. She deftly organized a truce, dividing the venue so that the standees would all be to one side and not block us sitters on the other side. Those who may be unfamiliar with her oeuvre and the significance of particular songs and their sources (the songwriters are not identified on screen during the clips) will be frustrated that no performance selection is complete. Not mentioned is where that extraordinary, multi-media archive, that is the core of this film, will be permanently housed.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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