Skip to main content

Joan Baez, Then and Now

Tue, 08/08/2023 - 06:30
A still from "Joan Baez I Am a Noise" captures James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and James Forman in a civil rights demonstration.
© Matt Heron

When the documentary filmmakers Karen O'Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O'Boyle decided to accompany Joan Baez on her farewell tour, they knew it could be intertwined with existing archival material about her career and activism.

"We imagined we would move in and out of the past, but what really shifted in terms of the filmmaking was when we discovered Joan's personal archive," Ms. O'Connor said by phone recently. Remarkably, the first time the camera follows Ms. Baez as she enters her family's storage unit was also the first time the singer herself had been there. "She had no idea what she had. The film unfolded because of what we found."

That film, "Joan Baez I Am a Noise," will conclude HamptonsFilm's SummerDocs series on Sunday evening at 7 at the East Hampton Cinema. A conversation with Ms. Baez, Ms. O'Connor, and Laurie Anderson will follow the screening.

Less than two minutes into the film, the camera approaches a secluded house somewhere in California. Ms. Baez appears, first swimming in the pool, then amid the property's dense foliage. Her gray hair is cut short; this is the singer in the film's present. 

In voiceover, she says, "I don't think anybody at a young age who gets famous has the slightest idea it will ever end. There's a moment when you're not what you were, and it has to happen to everybody who's ever been in the public eye, whether they pretend it hasn't or not."

Throughout the film, Joan-in-the-present alternates with the copious archival material that tells the story of her public and personal life. Her openness implies that the filmmakers have earned her trust, and it's no wonder.

"There's a history with Joan," said Ms. O'Connor. "I made a little PBS thing about her 30 years ago, and we've become friends over the years. She is familiar with the films Miri and I have done, so, both personally and professionally, we're just connected in all sorts of ways."

Around 2015, Ms. Baez told the filmmakers she was thinking about a possible final tour. As conversations ensued, by 2017 it became clear she was going to hit the road, although whether for the last time or not wasn't absolutely certain. 

"The idea was that by following the last tour we would have a contemporary strand that could give us potentially a contemporary arc of her story," said Ms. O'Connor.

While it's neither a conventional biographical documentary nor a concert film, there is footage of Ms. Baez onstage from as early as 1958, when she was 17, throughout her long career, as well as during shows on her "Fare Thee Well" tour of 2018. In fact, because her parents saved everything -- home movies, photographs. letters, audiotapes, even youthful drawings -- the lives not only of Joan, but also of her sisters, Mimi and Pauline, were documented from childhood.

The storage unit even had audiotaped letters Ms. Baez sent home while she was on the road. "When you hear Joan sending an audiotape home about the March on Washington, you're hearing what she experienced at the age of 21, and not now at this remove," said Ms. O'Connor.

Ms. Baez talks about her romantic relationships, including with Bob Dylan and, later, David Harris, a draft resister she married in 1969, when she was pregnant. Harris was incarcerated, and their marriage lasted only five years, but their son, Gabriel, a percussionist, is part of her band on the farewell tour. 

No personal stone is left unturned, including not only the ups and downs of her career but the emotional highs and lows that she has struggled with her entire life and the complicated dynamics within her family. At one point, Ms. Baez says, "I'm not very great at one-on-one relationships. I'm good at one-on-2,000."

"I knew there had been these internal struggles," said Ms. O'Connor, "but I didn't understand how soon it all began. Joan had talked about being ready to leave an honest legacy. And she meant it, in every way, not just the family trauma, but remarkable things like Dylan breaking her heart, the loss of fame, and sibling rivalry."

The film weaves many strands, moving back and forth through time. For example, footage from the 1960s of civil rights protests in Montgomery, Ala., where she can be seen marching with James Baldwin, cuts to Selma, Ala., during the 2018 tour, where she performs to a mostly Black audience. 

"I think because of our history our team was able to embed with Joan on the tour and at home in a way I don't think would have been possible with any other filmmaking team. We used that intimacy in every way we could, so you felt like you were really with her in a way that is rare for this kind of celebrity documentary," said Ms. O'Connor.

The filmmakers insisted, however, on editorial control, and Ms. Baez agreed. "That was gutsy of her. She's turning over her entire life to us. But she loves the film and has been proud of it, so that was a great relief."

Thank you for reading . . . 
...Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.