Berlinale 2023 Review: “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” Delivers a Strong Portrait of the Fragility of Memories

“I started getting complicated later,” Joan Baez says in “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise,” reflecting on her adolescence as the warm, nostalgic film from a family road trip rolls in which she can be seen singing in the backseat of her parents’ car with her sister Mimi. Her other sister Pauline recalls their youth as a happy one, but Joan is less sure and Mimi, who passed away in her fifties from cancer, is no longer around to speak to it, placing the burden on Joan to interrogate her memories. It’s a process that Baez is wise to note is inherently faulty at the beginning of Karen O’Connor, Maeve O’Boyle and Miri Navasky’s revelatory profile of the singer/songwriter, who acknowledges almost as soon as the film begins “If I could write my entire history, no one ever could because we remember what we want to remember.”

That resistance to definitive statements — and self-awareness — clearly has taken decades to come by for Baez, but it’s why “I Am a Noise” ends up as one of the few celebrity-driven biopics to clear a bar that so many others don’t, answering the question of whether the life of the artist would be interesting apart from dutifully recounting the career they’ve had with a resounding yes. There are only a handful of performances of the music that Baez became famous for, all feeling mildly incidental, as O’Connor, O’Boyle and Navasky follow her on her 2018 “Fare Thee Well” tour, and in spite of concerted sit-down interviews, her recollections of a life where she was constantly brushing shoulders with a grander history, whether playing alongside Bob Dylan or being active in the Civil Rights Movement where she can be seen walking stride for stride with James Baldwin, come across just as casually. At age 79 when the film begins, Baez speaks to her experience with the ease of someone past worrying whether she’s right than if she’s being truthful with herself, looking far more comfortable in her own skin than she did when she rose to prominence at 18 as a sensation at the Newport Folk Festival. Poised beyond her years with a reassuring voice that was unusually suited to resonate during uncertain times, she remembers now how remarks like “Oh, she looks so peaceful” would sting when “exactly the opposite was going on inside.”

A recognition sets in that Baez rarely sang about herself when her music was largely concerned with the plight of others with her dedication to activism, and while that may have prevented O’Connor, O’Boyle and Navasky from the obvious way in to abstract thoughts she may have had at various points in her life, they make extraordinary use of their access to the voluminous archives she’s kept dating back to her youth, with not only home movies but journals that members of her family kept including herself, which are then brought to life with extraordinary vitality with the animation of Eat the Danger. Even before she can verbalize her discomfort with fame, you understand it deeply as the film jumps between public appearances and private recordings, and Baez describes how a Quaker upbringing instilled a social consciousness that nagged at her as she found success, wondering how accepting she should be of the privilege that came with stardom when so many lived without it. She was also hyper-aware of how being the center of attention would warp her perspective and some of those around her, disheartened to see how greater notoriety led to Dylan distance himself from most people, including her, as well as the divide it placed between her and Mimi, a talented musician in her own right who was warned from the start of her career she’d be overshadowed by her sister.

Baez’s connection to Mimi becomes a central focus of “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” when a comparison is organically drawn between their careers as well as their reaction to a dark chapter in their family’s past, a long suppressed memory for Baez that Mimi remembered vividly. In a particularly brilliant structural stroke, it feels as if the trauma of this event comes up for Baez in its own time, allowing the ripples of it to reverberate in how one thinks about everything that happened before it and after and the comparitmentalization it induces not only as a form of protection but in Baez’s case, a necessity as a public figure. The film’s title may be inspired by a note Baez made to herself at 13, writing in her journal “I’m not a saint, I am a noise,” but it takes on a poignant second meaning as you witness her gradually clearing the cacophony that clutters her mind to find an inner peace, yielding the kind of triumph that’s generally felt with the energy of an audience of thousands at an arena but is seen here in the solitude of being comfortably alone with one’s thoughts.

“Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” will screen at Berlinale on February 18th at 3:30 pm at Cubix 9, February 19th at 2 pm at Thalia – Das Progammkino (Potsdam), February 22nd at 7 pm at Haus der Berliner Festspiele, February 23rd at 9:30 am at Cubix 9, and February 24th at 12:45 pm at Verti Music Hall.

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