Bob Dylan called it her “heart-stopping soprano,” and it’s true that when Joan Baez unleashed that pure, angelic voice on the protest song “We Shall Overcome,” you could believe we would, indeed, overcome.
The celebrated folk singer and activist was singing about civil rights, of course. But what we learn in the thoughtful, thorough and sometimes harrowingly intimate “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” is that Baez was also seeking to overcome much on a personal scale: anxiety, depression, loneliness and, late in life, troubling repressed memories about her own father.
If that sounds like a lot to cover in 113 minutes, it is — especially because the new documentary, directed by Maeve O’Boyle, Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor, also recaps a 60-year performing career, with the singer telling her story through interviews and an incredible wealth of archival material. We see Baez entering for the very first time a storage unit filled to the ceiling by her late mother with photos, home films, audio recordings, letters, drawings and even tapes of therapy sessions.
And she gave her directors the key. The film was originally intended simply to cover Baez’s last, 2018 “Fare Thee Well” tour, but Baez decided to leave a more thorough legacy.
The film begins with novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s quote about how everyone has three lives: public, private and secret. Well, this is certainly apt for Baez, who emerged as a sudden star in 1959, an 18-year-old with a guitar and that bell-like voice, and went on to make some 40 albums, with a 2017 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. As we see from her own anguished drawings and letters beginning in youth, her intensely public life masked both a difficult private one and some dark secrets as well.
And then there was Dylan, the same age as Baez, that inscrutable genius who stole her heart and then broke it. It was intoxicating being together, recounts Baez, who introduced him lovingly to her audiences, until a painful UK tour when his fame blossomed and “it was horrible.” Then, staring into the camera, she says: “Hi, Bob!” It’s a welcome and rare opportunity to laugh with her.
“Joan Baez: I Am a Noise,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association. Running time: 113 minutes. Three stars out of four.