scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘Joan Baez I Am a Noise’ is a ‘visual memoir’ of a monumental voice in music

The directors of the new documentary talk about weaving together the particulars of Baez’s public life with glimpses into her complex private world

Joan Baez in "Joan Baez I Am a Noise."Magnolia Pictures/© Albert Baez

More than 60 years after she single-handedly turned a little Harvard Square café called Club 47 into an epicenter of the folk revival, what more can be said about Joan Baez? A new documentary, “Joan Baez I Am a Noise,” opening at Landmark Kendall Square on Oct. 13, has an emphatic answer to that question.

Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle, co-directors of "Joan Baez I Am a Noise." Magnolia Pictures

The title refers to a line drawn from the childhood journals of Baez, 82, which play a big role in the film. There’s plenty of archival material, but also contemporary footage of Baez taking voice lessons, swimming laps in her pool, and dancing. Lots of joyous dancing.


Co-directors Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle were colleagues for years on the PBS series “Frontline.” After working on a half-hour PBS program on Baez in the 1980s, O’Connor became friendly with the singer. That friendship helped pave the way for a remarkably intimate portrait, one that reveals a lifelong struggle with panic attacks and periods of darkness.

It’s a “visual memoir,” as O’Connor suggests, artfully weaving together the particulars of Baez’s public life — her catapult launch to fame, her relationship with Bob Dylan, her ubiquity in the protest movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War — and glimpses into her complex private world, including her work in therapy to recover some painful memories.

The Globe recently spoke with the co-directors on a video call.

Joan Baez on her final tour in "Joan Baez I Am a Noise."Magnolia Pictures/© Mead Street Films

Q. How did you get her to agree to do this?

Karen O’Connor. Joan and I have known each other for 30-plus years. I think when she got the idea of a last tour, it opened up the possibility of doing that next chapter in her life, since the last memoir [”And a Voice to Sing With,” 1987].

Maeve O’Boyle. Initially we thought we would just film the contemporary tour. What ultimately happened, the following summer, was that she allowed us access to her family’s storage unit, where we uncovered all of her incredible archive — diaries, tapes, films that her dad shot, et cetera. We realized it was a real catalyst to turn the entire story into something really rich and layered, with past and present coming alive at the same time.


Q. Did she give you that access understanding that you were going to see a lot of stuff about her private life that she’d never really talked about?

K.O. She’d actually never been in the storage unit. Her joke is she thought it was furniture, plates, whatever. That said, she was open, and obviously there was a level of trust that she was willing to give us all access to her life, on and off the stage.

Miri Navasky. I think slowly over time — and the opening of the storage unit was a huge piece of that — she realized in order to do her full life story, she kind of had to hand over the keys, so to speak.

Joan Baez with James Baldwin and James Forman in "Joan Baez I Am a Noise."Magnolia Pictures/© Matt Heron

Q. As she says in the film, she’s never wanted to be anything but honest about her life. On the other hand, she’s also a very private person. It’s a fascinating combination. Folks who have amassed the kind of celebrity she has are usually one or the other, but she somehow has managed to be both.

K.O. It’s an interesting duality. This is a woman who has been famous for 60 years, so there’s the “presented” Joan. At the same time, there was a willingness in this film to go places where she hadn’t gone before. Certainly some of the family history.


M.N. She’s been a star, and people bow down to her. She’s intimidating. And Karen was able to say, “You can’t cut this off. You’ve got to let us in, or it’s not gonna work.”

Q. Anyone want to mention an example of that?

K.O. It was things like the vocal lesson. It was [filming her in] the pool — it was cold and she didn’t want to do it. She got grumpy with Miri and Maeve when they were in Paris with her.

Miri, Maeve, and I didn’t want to do the typical celebrity documentary. As you know, the image is often carefully controlled and curated. You don’t walk away knowing something more about the person.

M.N. She’s at peace with herself, and she has a comfortability — where she draws lines, what she wants to share and what she doesn’t want to share. That was easy to work with, because she knows who she is in such a profound way.

Joan Baez at the Alabama State Capitol in 1965, from "Joan Baez I Am a Noise."Magnolia Pictures/© Stephen Sonnerstein

Q. She has some kind of magnetism that young women are drawn to: “This is what a full woman’s life looks like, and that’s what I aspire to.”

K.O. We’ve done the festival run over this last year, and it has been remarkable to see the response, often of younger women, who may have heard about her through their parents or their moms, or knew of her through Bob Dylan or the Vietnam War. There’s something about seeing this incredibly complicated, full life on the screen that was for many of those women really moving and eye-opening.


M.N. Two things that stuck out for me. Aging. Obviously, she’s incredibly comfortable with her vulnerabilities as an older woman — how she’s changed, and her voice, especially. I think that is quite powerful. You have to let yourself grow and age as you do, and lean into the beauty of that.

I also think there’s something about the audiotapes from her youth that is quite inspiring — “I want to change the world,” these idealistic views she had of herself. “I’m going to lead a million people marching. I’m going to start a peace movement.” Her dreams for herself are incredibly inspirational, and I think she fulfilled a lot of what she wanted to be.

Joan Baez, subject of "Joan Baez I Am a Noise." Magnolia Pictures

Q. How much do you think the fact that she was raised Quaker has shaped her? Or was she going to be that person anyway?

M.N. I think it’s huge. It’s imbued everything she’s done. Her empathy, her ability to put herself in other people’s shoes. I can’t imagine that her Quakerism isn’t a huge part of that.

K.O. And her commitment to nonviolence. She’s followed it all her life, and has sometimes been mocked or dismissed for it. But when you look at it, it really is a kind of moral compass that tracks throughout her entire life. I think it’s very much in her DNA.


Q. What has been the response so far to what Joan talks about in terms of her trauma therapy?

K.O. That’s been maybe the biggest surprise, the most gratifying for Joan. For me, Joan is talking with such honesty about a difficult and painful period in her life. Everybody has something, whether it’s addiction or trauma — everyone has some mishegas. In terms of abuse, women old and young have come up to Joan about their own experiences. Men as well. It’s been more relatable than we could have known or predicted.

Q. There’s a totally different documentary that could have been made, sort of the Ken Burns style, hitting every point when she made news, which you clearly don’t attempt. Are there aspects of her life and legacy that you had to leave on the cutting-room floor?

K.O. Absolutely. We struggled to cut it down to this. There were big pieces of her life we left out. The dip in fame and the resurgence, her political activism — Latin America, Ireland. All the relationships — Kris Kristofferson, Steve Jobs. It’s just so much of a life. She’s everywhere. It is a little bit like walking history. She’s not Zelig, but almost.

Interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him @sullivanjames.