MOVIES | IN THEATERS NOW

The emotional power of stock taking and self-examination: “JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE” | INTERVIEW

Film premiered at the 2023 DC/DOX Festival
Co-directed by Miri Navasky, Karen O'Connor and Maeve O'Boyle

Joan Baez I Am a Noise” is less a travelogue of Joan Baez’s six decades in music than it is an exploration of her personality, her hopes, her tragedies, her triumphs and her political advocacy on behalf of the cause of peace.  In addition to the music she made early on with Bob Dylan, the film tells of Baez’s difficulties with anxiety as well as her later-in-life wish to confront her parents about what she viewed as unacceptable behavior in her youth.  It’s a fascinating, sometimes excruciating, watch and a portrait in empathy.

At a post-screening Q&A at the DC/DOX Festival that launched in Washington, D.C. earlier this year moderated by Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday with the film’s director Karen O’Connor present, Joan Baez brought the crowd to its feet. At 82, she’s still imbued with the spirit that first got her noticed as a teenager.

Baez shared with the audience that she has watched “Joan Baez I Am a Noise” several times thus far, and each time, beholding O’Connor’s take on her extraordinary life is a highly emotional experience.  One crucial scene shows O’Connor’s camera following Baez into a storage unit containing her memorabilia, personal recordings and other ephemera collected over a half-century, much of which she has never looked at.

“It started out being a film about the [final concert] tour, and then they got into the storage unit.  They had no idea what was in there,” Baez said, adding that she essentially handed O’Connor the keys to the kingdom.

O’Connor purposefully avoided the trap of including other talking heads in “Joan Baez I Am a Noise”; it was to be Baez’s narrative alone.

“Joan’s guts and bravery to be as revealing as she is about everything in her life [show through] as never before,” the director said.

It was Baez’s wish to leave behind an “honest legacy,” which she felt easier accomplishing with her parents and siblings all having passed.  (Baez has one son, Gabriel, who worked on her final tour and is seen in the film.)  This meant admitting to her own traumas, but simultaneously acknowledging her love for her family.

“I think probably my Quaker training when I was little was a lot about forgiveness,” Baez said.  “None of it was easy; all of it was work.

“Even the term ‘passive resistance’, it’s a tremendous force.  You have to be ready to fight.  The difference is you will be ready not to inflict suffering; you will accept it but you won’t inflict it.”

Although she is seen working with a vocal coach in “Joan Baez I Am a Noise” as her voice isn’t as strong as it once was, Baez nonetheless let loose with some mellifluous vocalizing from the stage, which drew another hearty round of applause.

“We rarely see an aging woman on the screen,” enthused O’Connor.   “I was struck by the history and hearing about the March on Washington and thinking, ‘Oh my god, she was eighteen; she was twenty-one’—and lived a life that was fiercely creative and committed from the beginning on.”

Baez said that while she is not an optimistic person by nature, she was once told it is a waste of time being a pessimist.  Thus she tries to hew to this advice when continuing to work for social change into her ninth decade.

“I was lucky to have people who mentored me lead me to understand ‘we shall overcome’ didn’t mean overnight, or even in my lifetime,” she said, adding “otherwise, we would have been very discouraged.”

“Most of our lives are complicated and deep,” added O’Connor.  “To make a doc that was layered and challenging to viewers…I was impressed that [Baez] meant it when she said she was with us.”

“Joan Baez I am a Noise” is out in theaters now.

See also by Eric Althoff: First ever DC/DOX FEST kicks off; we were there