In “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise,” which is premiering on Feb. 17 at the Berlin Film Festival, the folk icon with a supple soprano voice and a long history of activism, takes a disarmingly candid look at her life as she faces the end of her 60-year musical career.
The immersive doc is co-directed by Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle. They interweave Baez’s 2018 Fare Thee Well final concert tour with her early years, her rise to fame, struggles with drugs that ensued, and a darker psychological thread involving a form of child abuse on the part of Baez’s father. A surprising level of intimacy is reached thanks to a wealth of material obtained from Baez’s meticulously preserved personal archives comprising home movies, diaries, artwork, therapy tapes, and audio recordings of voice letters to her family. Some, while Baez was on tour in England in 1965 with Bob Dylan whom, she confesses in the doc, “broke my heart.”
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Prior to coming to Berlin to promote “I Am a Noise” – the first time Baez has ever attended a film festival – Baez and O’Connor spoke exclusively to Variety about the complexities of making this vivid multi-stranded visual memoir.
“I Am a Noise” delves deep into your private sphere, Joan. How did the idea, the desire, to make this particularly personal doc come about?
Joan Baez – Well, first of all, I’ve known Karen for a long time. There had to be somewhere to put my trust. It probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise, without knowing her and Miri. And I look at it as kind of my third memoir. I’ve written one in my twenties, and one in my thirties. It’s probably what would’ve happened if I had written a memoir at this point in my life. This project really became intriguing during the tour. Not so much the question of whether I would end up touring. We were sort of rolling along, we didn’t know what was going to happen in my life: whether I was going to quit, or whether I was going to keep going, etc. But it just became this sort of rambling journey that we all went on. That’s all I can say. But maybe Karen sees it differently.
Karen O’Connor – For Miri and myself, we kind of thought that the idea of following Joan, following someone famous for over 60 years coming to the end of a music career, would give us a narrative anchor, potentially. So at first we imagined the doc maybe being a bit more of that. But then over time, as the film evolved – and as Joan entrusted us with this incredible personal and family archive – the focus began to shift. So then the merging of past and present became clearer to us: that in order to tell Joan’s remarkable life we had to kind of weave together the past and present. Using the final tour only as a kind of narrative anchor.
The narrative is beautifully done. It’s quite complex but it flows well. Of course, it’s not a biopic. It’s not a concert movie. It tracks different parts and aspects of Joan’s life. It seems as though the structure came as the documentary progressed.
O’Connor – The film itself was a kind of discovery for all of us. Including Joan. The day Joan took us to her to the storage unit for the first time – where she’d never been – and opened it and we saw the material. Suddenly, the past came alive in a way that we could immediately see. Thanks to Joan’s trust, who turned over to us deeply personal private material knowing she didn’t have final control, or final edit, of a cut of the film. We had imagined that this last tour could be a narrative anchor. But the rest just evolved due to the strength of the material, and the amazing discoveries we made along the way.
Joan, was it a tough decision for you to make these deeply personal materials available to Karen?
Baez – I just thought I’d shut my eyes and plug my nose and jump. Seriously, if I said: “well I got to check this stuff first,” we’d still be sitting there. So, I literally just said, “Okay, go, go.” And I trusted that something would come out of it that was trustworthy and true and non-sensational and brilliant. And I believe that’s what happened.
It must have been a big step to reveal that you and your sister Mimi withstood a form of abuse on the part of your father.
Baez – Well, it is a dog. Because I love my dad, and I can’t stand that part where he’s talking [denying any abuse on his part] on the tape recorder. Because his reality is what it was. I have no doubt that he was completely unaware of [us] remembering things. And so, that’s very difficult for me now. And I didn’t know exactly what would be in the film. So some things are surprising, and some are not. And some are painful.
O’Connor – Joan and Miri and I had many conversations about it. You are right, it was well considered on Joan’s part. Again, I think it’s because of our history, that she felt this was the right time. Because it would be handled in the way she described. But I think it was pretty significant, and I think complicated emotionally, as well. The [Baez] the family was actually very loving in its own way, to the very end. You see Joan say that she wished she could have taken care of her father, as they did her mother. So it’s complicated. It’s a complicated story to tell. But I think – I won’t speak for you, Joan – but I think, because you knew we would make it a complicated story, it made it feel a little more comfortable for you.
Baez – Yeah, there wasn’t any way it couldn’t be complicated.
O’Connor – And I think Joan, because your parents – you can speak to this – your parents and the immediate family are gone, that factored into your decision to do it now?
Baez – Yeah, I couldn’t have done it while they were still here, and they’re all gone.
Although the doc is very personal, I think “I Am a Noise” is in a way also political. By being so open about yourself, my impression is that you are trying to open a door for other people to dig deeper into their personal past, as a way to heal. That was my impression. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Baez – It does, and I’m pleased that you got it.
I hate to be so nosy, but because Bob Dylan is such a presence in the film, as he was in your life, and in the film you say that he broke your heart. I have to ask: are you still in touch with Bob Dylan at all?
Baez – Not really. But it doesn’t matter so much. Whatever resentment I might have had hanging on there [inside myself] for all those years, you heard and saw that in the movie. Well, I was doing his portrait one day in my art studio. And it was a portrait of him when he was very young. And I put on his music, and all of that resentment, all of that bullshit, just drained away, it drained away. And I wrote him a letter and told him so. And that was it. I didn’t put a return address or an email or anything that was in any way trying to get something out of him. I just wanted him to know how much he meant to me. How much his music had meant to me. And I may never see him again, and that’s okay too.
Was the end of the “Fare Thee Well” tour really your last concert? Have you performed on stage since then? Is it something you rule out?
I was thinking about that the other day, because I have my lovely big guitar hanging on the wall. I haven’t touched it since the end of the last tour. In fact, I have two guitars, identical ones, that we used in concert. That I needed for the concerts. And I gave one away on the last concert. So that meant to me that I was serious. I came home, and I never played the guitar again. I hung it up on the wall, and I’ve sung under duress a few times, but not really, I just went into other things. I’m drawing and painting.
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