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New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: Joan Baez says goodbye her own way in new documentary

“Joan Baez I Am a Noise” follows the political activist and musician as she embarks on her farewell tour and looks back on her storied career.
Folk-singer Joan Baez reflects on her career in her new documentary, “Joan Baez I Am A Noise.” (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Early on in “Joan Baez I Am a Noise,” the titular musician says “I always said I didn’t want to do a farewell tour, because people who say that always come back. But maybe it’d be nice to celebrate… 55 years of it.” Joan Baez is modest. As someone who confesses she was once seduced by ego and fame in her youth, she, now at 82, looks back on her nearly six-decade music career and high-profile political activism with an introspective gaze. Directors Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle capture it all, framing her self-reflection with footage from the farewell tour she once said she’d never do. “I Am a Noise” is far more than a documentary about Baez’s music — it is a portrait of the woman behind it.

Nowadays, Baez lives something of a quiet life. It’s jarring to see a legend of her stature listening to music on the treadmill, walking her dog and caring for her ailing mother. Rarely has intimacy on this level been achieved in a music documentary. At times, Baez seems like she would be a typical grandmother, rather than the author of “Diamonds and Rust,” and dozens of other classic songs.

Films made in such close collaboration with their subjects can be challenging. Nothing compares to having the subject in the same room as the filmmakers, though it can lead to them exerting undue influence on the narrative. While good can be made of the inherent tension, it takes a skilled filmmaker to find that potential.

With “I Am a Noise”, the effects of Baez’s presence are mostly positive. Featuring firsthand stories about her rise to fame at a young age, the film is able to cut down on sensationalism. Often remembered as a gifted overnight star with an angelic voice, Baez paints herself as an intensely unstable individual who suffered numerous emotional and personal breakdowns, as well as bouts with drug addiction.

Then there’s Bob Dylan. So much media surrounding Baez is dragged down by its focus on when she and Dylan performed together and were a couple. Baez is a colossal artist in her own right, and it often feels degrading and sexist the way she is prodded to disclose information about the famously reclusive Dylan. With Baez able to steer her own narrative, she is able to highlight both the good and the bad, and then move on from their partnership altogether.

While Baez freely volunteers a lot of vulnerable honesty in the documentary, there are moments when the filmmakers seem too afraid to insert an external perspective and ask questions of their own. They present a glowing assessment of Baez’s history of political activism, such as her vocal anti-war efforts and the many protests she famously took part in. However, the filmmakers stop short of engaging with any of the wealth of criticism leveled at those same practices. Writers such as Joan Didion, who famously eviscerated Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in her essay “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” have long called into question the degree of performativity in her activism, but this film is not interested in engaging with that.

The filmmaking itself leaves something to be desired, leaning heavily on graphics and drone cinematography in a way that feels out of step with the intimate and personally focused context of the film. The visual scope of everything feels oddly cinematic. The lack of concert footage of Baez makes for the most puzzling choice. With cameras following her along her entire farewell tour, we barely get to witness one whole song by the time it’s over.

The power of the film lies in how it copes with the reality of aging. The circumstances of Baez’s life have changed, as have the realities of her as an artist, and the film is largely channeled through that lens. In a CNN clip, Christiane Amanpour asks, “Do you miss that voice, do you still have that?” to which Baez responds “I do not have it, and I do miss it. I have to come to terms with what I do have.” Here, Baez makes her case for quitting on her own terms, while highlighting all she is leaving behind.

“Joan Baez I Am a Noise” opens at Film Forum on Friday, Oct. 6, with tickets available on their website now. Additionally, there will be a sold-out Q&A screening with the filmmakers and Baez herself on Oct. 7, with some standby tickets available.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected].

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