Milwaukee Film Festival

The Unknown Joan Baez

New documentary about legendary folk singer finds mystery and surprises.

By - Apr 11th, 2024 12:58 pm
Joan Baez. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

Joan Baez. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

In a festival chockful of celebrity documentaries, one stands out as the most unsettling and provocative, using both speculative memory and fact. It involves an artist many still regard as a spiritual virgin with an inspiring soprano intimacy that hovers over our lives.

Joan Baez has been in the public eye since she was 18 and emerged as a folk singer in the 1950s. She is the subject of romantic legends and social activism from the days she introduced Bob Dylan to the folk world and brought celebrity attention to the Rev. Martin Luther King. She has toured the world, publicly danced and partied with the famous and has yet remained a surprisingly private person.

Now in her twilight (age 83) she has opened up her incredible archives of music and family photos and has lent her drawings to professional animation (the animation firm is rightly known as Eat the Danger) throughout the two-hour Joan Baez I Am a Noise.

The film never says she cooperated, but neither does it say she didn’t. She clearly encouraged use of her archives, her diaries and her commentary. It is all about her career and performing and yet it also about memories of a lifelong battle with depression and family doubts, her rivalry with her sisters, her love for and later doubts about her parents, how she rejected Dylan over the drug culture only to succumb in later decades to Quaaludes herself.

Her time with the young Dylan (much covered in other major documentaries) doesn’t enter until 40 minutes in and leaves a few minutes later, though the shadow of those times keeps coming up in her diaries and sketches. Somehow after age 50 she went out of public view.

Yet she rose again in tours and on TV and it is a still vibrant personality in the film that shines through her musings, her meditation and her lifelong therapies (a mental depression I suspect few of her followers ever knew about).

A squad of capable crafts people, plus three directors (Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle and Karen O’Connor) have fashioned what is as much a visual speculation as it is a biopic, though we get the younger Baez with family and on tour contrasted with the older Baez wryly admitting her voice has changed, yet lending passion and musicianship to flashes of concert footage (taken I suspect from her 2018 farewell tour, though this 2023 film doesn’t indicate years in its musings).

Her resilience as her lone family survivor (her sisters as well as her parents are dead, though they live in footage), her ability to dance on alone and keep fighting for social causes – those are the main moments of personal heroism we take away.

The last 20 minutes deal at depth with what the rest of the film is hinting at – those evasive family memories of whether she or her sisters were abused by the handsome dad they loved, whether her lifelong struggles against depression stem from that or not. She openly admits that her later years still only bring 20% certainty about any of this, but the film techniques of animating her drawings and highlighting her diaries are built around the speculation that hits us bluntly at the end.

Yet we never question her basic honesty and convictions. She emerges as admirable, both because of and despite the playing around with memory. I personally found the film fascinating.

Milwaukee Film Festival patrons can judge for themselves at 1 p.m. Monday, April 15 at the Avalon Theater, 1:30 p.m. Sunday April 21 at the Times and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday April 23 at the Oriental.

The general public can call 414-755-1965 or stop by the Oriental box office for tickets. Prices range from $15 to $8 depending on the age category and there is limited seating depending on the event and place.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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