From the time Joan Baez gave her first performances as a teenager in the late 1950s, she possessed a remarkable soprano voice with distinctive vibrato that paired magically with acoustic guitar. Baez also displayed an exceptional stage presence — confident, natural and serene.
But as the documentary Joan Baez I Am a Noise reveals, that appearance of almost divine tranquility was deceiving.
“Before a concert the stage fright was beyond what it should have been. It was terrible,” Baez tells Deadline. “There would be times when I would have a complete panic attack before the show and I would ask somebody, ‘Just shove me out there.’ And once I got out there I could do it and, for the most part, enjoy myself… But yeah, it was tumultuous. It was up and down.”
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The film directed by Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle makes its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday, in the Panorama Documentary section. The acquisition title (Submarine is handling sales) reveals the private struggles and public triumphs of a woman who came to personify the social conscience and counter-cultural thrust of the post-war generation.
“In this film we covered everything. But it was a journey,” Baez concedes. “I’ve never let anybody into my life like that.”
The documentary is structured around Baez’s final tour, which wrapped shortly before the pandemic erupted. It rewinds to her childhood as the daughter of a Mexican-born father and Scottish-born mother, Joan the middle sister between the eldest, Pauline, and youngest, Mimi. It was a family of exceptional intelligence and talent; Joan’s father was a brilliant physicist and her mother a gifted writer. Pauline, Joan and Mimi could all sing (the film includes a beautiful duet Joan and Pauline performed in the 1950s of the song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”).
For their portrait of Baez, 82, the filmmakers were able to draw from an incredible archive of materials Baez kept in storage: home movies, family photographs, journals and sketches by Baez and letters to her parents – both handwritten and many she had recorded on tape on the road and sent to her mom and dad back home.
“There was so much material and Joan was a ferocious writer, as was her mother. There were just hundreds of pages of endless writing and letters back and forth, audiotapes,” Navasky says. “It was just this massive archive.”
“They filmed me walking into that storage unit ‘cause I’d never walked into it before,” Baez laughs. “I didn’t have any idea what was in there. I mean, my parents kept everything… They kept every goddamned letter and tape, drawing.”
The documentary captures how Baez became a sensation after performing gigs at Club 47 in Boston. Between her vocal abilities and progressive political beliefs, she was perfectly suited to become a paragon of the burgeoning folk scene. But that rapid success caused tension within the family – her father resented the “easy” money she made that dwarfed his own income, and Joan’s sisters felt overshadowed by her sudden rise to fame.
In 1961 she met Bob Dylan in New York’s folk scene and they soon became a romantic couple. “I was just stoned on that talent,” she says in an interview from that era. In 1963 they performed at the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. By that time, she had arguably become the voice of her generation; before long, Dylan would assume that mantle.
Archival footage shows how Baez brought Dylan on stage during her concerts at a time when she was more acclaimed than him (her fans frequently booed Dylan, wanting to hear only her). A trip to London in 1965 became pivotal for Dylan’s career and the couple’s future; his fame skyrocketed beyond hers, and in interviews in London he denied being involved with anyone romantically.
“I was totally demoralized,” Baez tells the filmmakers. The subject still appears painful to her. “I think probably Dylan broke my heart,” she says. “I think that’s fair enough to say.”
That part of Baez’s life has been documented in other films before, including Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home. What’s harrowing about Joan Baez I Am a Noise are the revelations surrounding the lifetime of psychological duress she has experienced. She suffered anxiety from a young age, by 16 found life “unlivable,” and began therapy as a teenager. If she experienced joy, a kind of self-sabotage reared up, causing her to become physically ill.
“That little strain lasted a long, long time. If I had a jolly time, then I’d have to somehow or other pay for it,” she says. “I don’t think I’m alone with that — I’ve met some other people that have a similar [experience]. It was very exaggerated in me, and less and less so as I went forward.”
In a disturbing section of the film, Joan discusses her sister Mimi accusing their father of making a sexual advance on her. Joan also recounts a memory of her father being in bed with her, though she says she cannot recall definitively whether her father sexually abused her. In audiotapes stored in the archive, Al Baez expresses dismay over the allegations from Mimi and Joan. Baez tells the filmmakers, “I can’t prove anything.”
For the first time, Baez speaks in detail about experiencing multiple personalities, among them someone she describes as “Diamond Joan.” The condition, known clinically as dissociative identity disorder, typically results from long-term trauma in childhood featuring abuse or neglect.
“There’s a reason why those people appear,” Baez tells Deadline regarding the different personalities. “They’re saving your life.”
She adds, “I’ve never talked about it. This will be the first indication anybody ever had… I don’t know what the reaction’s gonna be.”
The filmmakers say they carefully considered how to present such a sensitive aspect of Baez’s life.
“We wanted to be sure it had context,” O’Connor says. “It could tip so easily into something sensational and unearned in the course of the film. And so we wanted it to have been grounded in other ways in Joan’s struggle. As you see from her early childhood, she struggled with crippling panic attacks and fears… We wanted there to be a trajectory of it in some way, both in Joan’s drawings, in the content, in her life story, and then to do it thoughtfully, carefully, honestly, and as fairly as we could.”
Navasky adds, “It was very, very complicated to figure out the right balance and to get it right for Joan.”
The directors accomplished that, Baez says.
“They’ve tried to keep it so that it didn’t dominate my world, the film,” Baez comments. “It’s only a part of it and I think that’s really important. And that was their job, to try and do that artfully and reasonably. And I think we’ve succeeded in that.”
Baez tells Deadline she indeed considers herself retired from performing. We asked her what she’s most proud of as she examines the arc of her life and career.
“Probably, or possibly, that I made it through and came to some kind of peace,” she says, likening her experience as having come through a tunnel. The question triggered a sudden realization on her part.
“Ah, I dreamed about a tunnel last night, I just remembered. [In the dream] They’re making a tunnel under the ocean. They have to go from one continent to the other, and how are they gonna do that? And who’s gonna volunteer? Okay. I just figured out that dream. But I did make it through the tunnel. I don’t know if those guys in there running out of oxygen, whether they did or not, but I did.”
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