Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle and Karen O’Connor on a Life of Resonance in “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise”

When Joan Baez announced in 2019 she would retire from performing, putting a punctuation mark on six decades of live concerts with a final tour, Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle were already at work on allowing her voice to carry on. The singer/songwriter vowed not even to pick up her guitar again to play around the house once she put it down, but the filmmakers knew that it was always about more than music for Baez, who saw her celebrity as currency for social activism, and in speaking to the life of someone who sang “We Shall Overcome,” standing alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, the notion of lyricism was foundational, detached from any musical association, but instead how fluidly Baez traveled between different cultural spheres and times.

Nearly a decade after the filmmaking trio started tooling around with how to make a unique biography for such a singular icon, “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” emerges as a gloriously restless portrait of an artist that will surely keep her work alive after she’s put her professional music career to bed. That certainty of not returning to touring and a public life yields remarkable candor and a bracing inventory of the storage locker that her parents dutifully kept of a family they knew would be making history when Baez and her sister Mimi Fariña showed prodigal skills from an early age. O’Connor, Navasky and O’Boyle draw from the archives generously to illustrate Baez’s early years, from striking 8mm home movies shot by her father to drawings she sketched alongside her journal entries to give insight to emotions she couldn’t yet articulate, and has the artist revisit them now, stirring up epiphanies that appear as revelatory to her as they are to an audience.

However, one must be careful to avoid describe “I Am a Noise” as looking back when its immediacy becomes its greatest truth about Baez, who has consistently remained connected to the here and now throughout decades of social upheaval in America and abroad, where she has traveled as much on humanitarian missions as to perform at concerts. The film offers reflection, but it’s constructed around the musician finding her voice even after it’s brought her such acclaim and attention, independent of family ties or the her contemporaries such as Bob Dylan and Baez can be seen working through her memories with a perspective and wisdom she has only now, far less interested in nostalgia than genuine interrogation. It’s what makes “I Am a Noise” not as much of a stretch as one might think for Navasky, O’Boyle and O’Connor, who have generally sought out stories of communities deserving of more compassion and finds someone who has so freely given it to everyone but herself.

With the film kicking off its U.S. theatrical run this week after premiering earlier this year at Berlinale, the three filmmakers spoke about how it took all of them to tackle such an extraordinary life story, how the trust O’Connor had with her longtime friend Baez led to such intimate access and creating such electrifying fluidity in the edit to express their subject’s experience.

Karen, I understand this all started out with you since you were friends with Joan, but formally, this seems like a major challenge when you and Miri had never done a biography before and you certainly don’t approach it as I think most would. What was it like to do something on your own terms?

Karen O’Connor: Little did we know how major it would be, [but] it seemed like an opportunity because of the friendship and the history there that maybe we could do a cool film about a famous person without doing the conventional celebrity tropes — we could not do the famous people talking about Joan, but maybe something more intimate and immersive and fly on the wall. But we weren’t sure what it was going to be. We started out with this general idea that maybe we would follow the farewell tour and it would be a verite film about just that. And then Joan took us through that storage unit [that her parents kept] — she’d never been there before and giving us the f keys to that kingdom changed everything. Once we found the storage unit, all bets were off. It was a massive undertaking, but there was an opportunity to do something with original source material that really cracked open the film.

Miri Navasky: I was blown away by everything — the journals, the letters, the artwork. But for me, the audio tapes of her when she’s 17, 18, 19, trying to figure out who she wanted to be and talking through these kind of amazing moments in history. She’s in Montgomery, she’s talking about the peace movement that she wants to start, she’s fantasizing about who she wanted to be and it all came true for her. So I loved that and one of the things we were talking about is she was this woman in search of herself and she was constantly pushing herself, [asking] who do I want to be and who am I in her letters home to her mom. “I don’t just want to be this famous person. I want to do more.” And there was a point in the film where we were like, “Okay, we have to figure out how to make these primary materials come alive and be the backbone of the film.” It was amazing to hear her 17-year-old voice.

Maeve O’Boyle: It was also this gorgeous moment to hear her singing Harry Belafonte when she was 14 or 15, and what I believe was her diary when she was 13 years of age. She’s talking about everybody being a little dot on the earth and her Quakerism and her social consciousness beginning to kick in and you realize this is the beginning of this incredible journey for her whole life. So it was really exciting for us to utilize that kind of source material, and bring it to life in a fresh way. It just completely re-informed the film in terms of the contemporary strand as well.

Karen O’Connor: And completely overwhelming. We have never had such massive amount of material ever. And it just was really the three of us until the creative teams all came in — our composer, our animation team, our graphics designer — obviously adding huge things, but it was just massive.

Miri Navasky: I forgot that I had done this, but I thought I had never done a biography before, but years ago when I first started out, I was an [associate producer] on a film about Lee Harvey Oswald, which the Warren Commission uncovered everything [about] and I swear to you, Joan had 20,000 times as much [in terms of archival materials] as the Warren Commission.

Miri Navasky: It was nuts. [Her parents] documented every single thing in her life — the letters, and in her family’s life.

Maeve O’Boyle: Because you had the traditional archive that was absolutely enormous because she was filmed endlessly just as a famous person. But then on top of that, you had the personal archive, so it was an entirely new part to the entire storytelling and it lent itself to a far better film because we had that. but it was a huge challenge.

It feels so immediate and I wonder how much of a foundation do you need to have to start cutting this together when the past and present are so much in conversation with one another?

Miri Navasky: I think this was good to have three of us because I would have just sat with that archive forever, organizing it and documenting it, so it required the mind of three to go in and tease it apart and keep going. We had a contemporary film we were making of her in her final tour, and Karen was doing these amazing interviews with her, looking back over her life. So there were so many different aspects going on simultaneously.

Maeve O’Boyle: Miri had organized the archive so incredibly well that when we were trying to weave from the contemporary into the past, it was much easier because it was all organized fastidiously around like different layers and different kinds of stages in [Joan’s] life, so it was really useful in terms of narrative and from the edit perspective.

Karen O’Connor: We didn’t have all the building blocks [at the start] obviously, and it was a discovery along the way. We had a general idea of what we called a visual memoir that would be dreamlike. You would merge in and out of the past, ideally seamlessly and one would inform the other, but then pieces moved, and you had this massive life, so how much could you tell? There was so much to leave out. But the general themes of memory and identity and aging and fame were ideas that we [knew we] would be dipping in and out of the film. It obviously changed over time, based on what scenes we would film or what we’d get from an interview.

Maeve O’Boyle: I always thought of it, certainly in the edit, as an absolute journey, like the contemporary strand and the strand of the past that we were always journeying through. There were a lot of visuals of her in the car looking back, so the idea was always that the past and present would constantly inform each other and build a larger story as we went.

You mentioned the animation and graphic design teams that came in – that’s such an electrifying part of the film. How did you go about bringing those journals to life?

Karen O’Connor: Conor O’Boyle, Maeve’s brother, did the graphic design and all the letters for us. He did an amazing job so that you feel those letters are also taking you inside Joan’s inner world in that way, and our hope was, as in everything that even the letters have a dramatic arc. They go deeper and darker over time, showing what appears to be true on the outside and then what Joan’s actually experiencing on the inside, whether it’s the marriage to David Harris or the beginning of the relationship with [Bob] Dylan or the later darker family trauma. We wanted everything to have a beginning, a middle and an end — the artwork, the letters, the tapes, all of it — and you shouldn’t be aware of it in the film, but in whatever way we could, everything’s intentional in that way so that you feel cumulatively that you’ve stepped inside her life in a way that maybe people wouldn’t [be conscious of].

Miri Navasky: The artwork was a challenge for us because she has so much of it. She’s been an artist her whole life and none of us had done animation before, so there were conversations at the beginning about how to bring that piece of her inner world and creativity to life and to have a depth where you’re going deeper and deeper into her art world. That was super challenging [to figure out], and we worked with an Irish group, Eat the Danger, that stayed super true to her artwork. That was one of our challenges, and it was a lot of hand-drawn animation [that they had to be] redoing and redoing, so it was intensive labor.

It looked marvelous, and when you’re engaging with Joan throughout this — I’ve heard there were shoots as early as 2013 and both her sister Pauline had passed and the retirement conversation started creeping in as you were in production — what’s it like filming with her as she’s obviously processing all of this at the same time?

Karen O’Connor: It’s been very emotional actually. All of it. And then seeing the final film, [Joan’s] continuing to see it and experiences it differently each time, takes it in more, but it’s not just a film, obviously, it’s personal experience. I think she actually is really grateful that she has those scenes that we have in the film of her mom and her sister Pauline. There are things she hadn’t ever actually known or heard until she saw the film, so I think it’s been an incredibly moving but complicated emotional experience for her. She didn’t have final cut, so this was a big act of trust in that way. And overall, I think she’s been really gratified to see the response for the film, which whether people have gone through the same things or not. People have been moved that Joan’s been so honest about her life in every way, and it’s been emotional and complicated and gratifying for her, but for us too. To show this to her for the first time in a rough cut, it was like, “Oh my God, we’re sitting there laying out her life and all of its complications, but happily, she’s really pleased with it.

“Joan Baez: I Am Noise” opens on October 6th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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