If you haven’t heard, there’s a new documentary in theaters this week that shines an admiring spotlight on a female singer who’s often considered the voice, even the conscience, of her generation. I’m talking, of course, about Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, the triumphant, almost uncomfortably intimate look at the woman whose angelic voice and social conscience embodied the spirit of the 1960s counterculture, and whose pipes and activism have barely dimmed with age.
The film, directed by Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle, and Karen O’Connor, initially has the vibe of a typical late-career hagiography. At 79, Baez embarks on what may be her final tour, taking the opportunity to reminisce about her historic career. An opening scene even has her consulting with a voice coach, who must have felt like a Little Leaguer giving Mike Trout advice on his batting stance.
Priceless archival footage demonstrates her virtuosic vocal talent, first harnessed as a teenager, to her physicist father’s mild chagrin. Excerpts from Baez’s childhood journals (one of which provides the film’s title) show her as preternaturally occupied with morality and a purposeful life. There are the expected segments covering her still-raw feelings toward Bob Dylan (“It Ain’t Me, Babe” is the only song performed multiple times in the movie) and her presence beside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Washington.
But the real topic of I Am a Noise is family. Baez’s younger sister Mimi was plagued by jealousy, eventually marrying the mercurial novelist and songwriter Richard Fariña, who was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident shortly thereafter. Joan herself had tumultuous relationships with Dylan and a short-lived marriage to draft resister David Harris, much of which transpired while Harris was in federal prison. Baez says in the film that she wasn’t cut out for one-on-one relationships, but for one-on-two-thousand relationships.
From an early age, Baez reveals, she experienced extreme bouts of anxiety and depression, and I Am a Noise eventually delves into the harrowing family history and generational trauma that may be behind those feelings. It’s a surprising and brave turn, but one that feels genuine and more than earned. Baez, despite her scars, has never been one to shy away from doing what she thought was right, and her vulnerability here is just the latest example. (Opens Friday, October 13 at Cinema 21, the Salem Cinema, and the Kiggins Theatre)
With Joan Baez and that other famous vocalist hogging so much cinematic real estate, this is a good week to focus on some notable home viewing options, including a pair of physical releases compiling the work of two remarkable female independent filmmakers and a pair of eye-opening documentaries available on Max.
Beth B, along with her creative partner Scott B, was a mainstay of the 1980s post-punk No Wave movement centered in New York City, alongside filmmakers such as Amos Poe, Richard Kern, and Lydia Lunch. As a solo artist, Beth B directed a series of provocative shorts and features, with perhaps the most prominent being 1993’s Two Small Bodies, which starred Suzy Amis and Fred Ward.
The new two-disc Blu-ray set from Kino Lorber, Sex, Power, and Money: Films by Beth B, collects work made between 1983 and 2017, much of which confronts issues of gender and sexuality with a forthrightness that was ahead of its time. The most notable and problematic instance of this is 1996’s Visiting Desire, a proto-reality-show in which a group of strangers are invited to share a bedroom with one another while attempting to act out their fantasies. It gets very weird, especially with unrepentant provocateur Lunch as one of the participants. While uncomfortably raw in ways, this work remains as relevant as ever. (Side note: one of the shorts features the MCU’s own Agent Coulson, Clark Gregg, when he was so young his last name only had two g’s.)
The subtitle of Icarus Films’ release, Natalia Almada: The Personal and the Political, could just as easily refer to Beth B’s work. The Mexican-born, Chicago-raised Almada, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, takes an oblique, almost abstract approach in her nonfiction films, one of which focuses on her own great-grandfather, the president of Mexico from 1924 to 1928. Her mixed heritage informs much of her work, although her most recent film in the collection, 2021’s Users, adopts a more universal approach. In it, Almada uses the adoption of technology to perform many of the tasks of child-rearing as an entry point to a meditation on the multifarious ways that humans have surrendered their relationship with nature to the machines. These five features and one short film are an excellent introduction to a thoughtful filmmaker with an impeccable sense of framing and rhythm.
Once upon a time, HBO was known, among many other things, as a leading source for quality documentary filmmaking. Now it’s known as Max, but that tradition remains alive, at least for the moment, in two expertly crafted examinations of shameless self-delusion and the danger it can create. Savior Complex is a three-part series about Renee Bach, a young Christian woman who moved to Uganda and started a non-profit called Serving His Children. Unfortunately, Bach ended up accused of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Ugandan children after she administered medical care to them that she was sorely unqualified to give. A tragic examination of the hubris that religion can instill in its uncritical believers, Savior Complex is a gripping refutation of Bach’s refrain, “God doesn’t choose the qualified; He qualifies the chosen.” (Available to stream via HBO/Max platforms)
More evidence of the fatal consequences of ignorance comes in No Accident, but at least this time there are legal consequences. After the horrific events of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, including the death of Heather Heyer, the lawyers Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn pursued a civil conspiracy case against the organizers of the event. As recounted in Dahlia Lithwick’s book Lady Justice, Kaplan and Dunn faced an uphill battle assembling the evidence needed to demonstrate the existence of a conspiracy to commit violent acts. Nevertheless, they persisted, combing social media posts and other communications and demonstrating that, even in an increasingly lawless culture, the mechanisms of the justice system can still be used to hold the merchants of hate to account. (Available to stream via HBO/Max platforms)