2024 Milwaukee Film Festival: Day 13 “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise”

I don’t particularly like cradle to the grave films. They inevitably end up as a highlight reel and never dig too deeply into the interesting stuff as they have to keep moving on. While Joan Baez isn’t in the grave yet, JOAN BAEZ: I AM A NOISE uses the end of her performing career as a frame to look back. Like WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY she has to think about her life before she steps out on the stage to perform one more time.

That’s  harsher than my actual thoughts on the film, but there’s nothing novel about the film. Except that it’s about Joan Baez who lived an eventful life and was right in the center of the political and entertainment culture like few singers have ever been before or after.

I of course knew who Joan Baez was going in and the broad outlines of her life, even if I was not familiar with the nitty gritty details. It doesn’t hurt that Joan Baez is not afraid to speak her mind and is willing to serve up at least some of the warts of her personal life. She’s open about struggling with mental issues and the strain it put on her relationships. She’s open about her politics and beliefs, at least through Vietnam, but really doesn’t have anything to say after that. Which kind of reflects her career as a whole.

Now her transcendant voice is gone, although she’s still a better singer than 99% of the people on Earth. The film is a kind of taking stock. Unfortunately, I don’t think it really speaks to anyone who isn’t sold on her contributions.

I came in looking for a lot more insight on Joan Baez as a singer and writer, and I came out with she was naturally gifted and it came easy. I gained no real insight on her as an artist and that’s kind of a criminal failing of the film.

Instead, the film focusses in more detail on her personal life, her relationship with her family, and struggles with mental health and perhaps abuse by her father. The film doesn’t commit to saying whether it definitely happened or didn’t. Much of it is interesting, but the film fails to commit and you’re kind of left with the impression that she was neurotic and kind of self centered. If not for Joan Baez being in the film and being blunt about her own failings, you’d not be sure what the point of view is.

In the end, you’re left with Joan Baez had a beautiful voice, took social stands in the 1960s and backed it up with actions and accountability, and was neurotic and perhaps too self centered to be a good sister or mother. I suppose that’s something, but Joan Baez had too big a cultural footprint for that to be the major takeaways.

Time is running out. The 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 11, 2024 until April 25, 2024. Tickets can be purchased via MKEFILM.ORG.