Apr 12, 2023
When Joan Baez was 13 years old, she wrote an essay declaring who she was, prescient words from a precocious teen who would grow up to be a towering figure in American folk music and political activism. A phrase from it worked its way into the title Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle’s documentary that screens at the Festival on Tuesday, Apr. 18. Baez herself has thoughts on that essay.
“I was just thinking of the one thing we didn’t mention, which is the fantasy part, my ‘I’m going to start a peace movement and we’re going to save the world,’ Baez says during a recent video call with O’Connor and Navasky. “It was all very real to me, you know, I have to laugh. On the other hand, that’s the direction I went without ever looking back.
“But just to add, it is a funny combination of this shy, don’t-feel-good-about-myself, less than and, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to save the world.’”
What is Joan Baez I Am a Noise About?
Baez may not have saved the world in the end but not for lack of trying, as expressed through her music and her dedication to the civil rights and antiwar movement. But that is only one facet of I Am a Noise, a rich documentary that is as much about Baez’s complicated family story and her relationships with Bob Dylan and former husband, antiwar activist David Harris, as her career and politics. It is also as much about the present as the past as the filmmakers capture her during her 2018/19 “Fare Thee Well” tour. The 82-year-old artist is never less than frank and the filmmakers take a similar approach. This is not hagiography.
“I wanted to leave an honest legacy and you can’t do that if you pretty it all up,” Baez say. “So, it’s not pretty. I just held my nose and jumped in. I said, ‘Okay, here are the keys to the storage unit… What a Pandora’s box I let them open up and they just ran with it.”
O’Connor and Navasky are Emmy-winning filmmakers who frequently collaborate. The pair previously worked with O’Boyle (also the editor of I Am a Noise) when she co-produced and edited their 2015 PBS Frontline documentary, Growing Up Trans. The trio’s connection to Baez begins with O’Connor, who first met Baez in the mid-‘80s on a documentary project , the two women becoming friends. Filming for the documentary began several years before the Fare Thee Well tour but it was the idea of a final tour that kicked the project in high gear.
“There wasn’t a commitment to a last tour but the idea of a potential last tour gave Miri, Maeve, and I an opening to think about the value in documenting that with Joan. It would give us a window into somebody who had been famous for 60-plus years coming to the end of a kind of amazing career.
“There was no guarantee that would end, which made it even more interesting,” she adds. “The film itself could be a process of discovery. It was an opening and we knew it would be a narrative anchor. Over the course of time, the film shifted dramatically. As we all got in deeper and deeper and as Joan entrusted us, particularly with the family archive, the film really took a huge turn.”
O’Connor observes that Baez’s parents, Albert and Joan, kept everything. Albert, a physicist, made home movies of his family that included Baez’s older sister Pauline and younger sister, singer-songwriter Mimi Fariña. The family were also letter writers, Joan sending long written or recorded missives to her parents from the road. For the filmmakers, the trove was a gold mine.
“It cracked open the film in a lot of ways but particularly in terms of how to represent the past,” O’Connor says. “We had a chance to make the past come alive through the original source material that could make this a very different kind of biography. It would feel more like time travel than biography, so that we could see how Joan experienced things at the time rather than from the remove of 60 years later. There’s an immediacy and immersiveness that we wanted to capture in every strand of the film.”
How did the Filmmakers Find Balance?
One of the challenges of the film from the outset was how to balance the documentary’s many aspects of Baez’s family life, activism, and music career. But just in the way that she conducted her life, the filmmakers discovered some of the work was already done for them.
“The balancing of politics and music was almost natural to her from the time she was a teenager,” Navasky says. “In her letters, there is music and politics and family, they’re all interwoven. In some ways, following the course of her original primary material guided us.
“She’s had an incredibly packed life,” she adds. “We were constantly struggling with we could and couldn’t leave out.”
Baez has a son, Gabriel Harris, and a granddaughter, Jasmine, and she is an aunt to her sister Pauline’s children but she is the last of her birth family. The filmmakers were able to get footage of Baez’s mom before she died at 100 in 2013 and Pauline before she passed away at 77 in 2016. (Albert died in 2007 at 94, and Mimi in 2001 at 56.) But for the most part, it is Joan observing and speaking for her family.
“I hope I did them justice as well as I could,” Baez says. “I obviously couldn’t have made the film until they were all gone. For the Baez line, this is the end of the road. So, that, too, is part of leaving a legacy, of trying to leave an honest legacy. My family was nothing, if not honest, each in his own way.”
Joan Baez I Am a Noise is stuffed with music, from the beginning of Baez’s career when she was a teenager sensation all the way through the decades to that last tour of a venerated veteran performer. All that music will pour out of the Castro Theatre’s speakers during the film’s SFFILM Festival screening where O’Connor and Navasky and longtime Woodside resident Baez will be in attendance along with Baez’s friends and family.
“It’s different, seeing it on a big screen, because if you’re going to be overwhelmed, that’s the way to do it,” Baez says. “So each time I see it, there are different reactions and sometimes they’re very deep. They’re very sad. Sometimes I’m just delighted at the silly parts of it. I mean, does it bring up stuff? Absolutely. Absolutely, each time. Some of it I really don’t want to think about and I have to. With other parts of it, it’s okay.”
Joan Baez I Am a Noise: 5 PM. Tues., April 18, Castro Theatre. Click here for further information and tickets.
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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