The first Joanie doc, How Sweet the Sound, provided a more conventional overview of her long, successful career. So why this one?
I’m guessing she felt the need to amend the previous picture and to give fans a glimpse into the many emotional and psychological doubts, struggles, and setbacks that have largely escaped her fans’ attention. I suspect she wanted to also set the record straight that it hasn’t been easy, regardless of how many big moments she’s had in her 80 years.
The doc, with the title that is underwhelming and does not do justice to the content of this film, was put together by Magnolia which specializes in offbeat, unconventional movies, which this one is. It is also directed by three women, which is an odd choice, suggesting a possible bias when it comes to the film’s late revelations of possible sex abuse by Joan’s dead father, who cannot defend himself.
That said, Joan certainly reveals warts and all here, confessing to various career mistakes, personal foibles, and broken relationships, claiming responsibility in the instance of Bob Dylan and David Harris, her younger, political husband. In many ways, this doc is about a lifelong depression from some inner centre of darkness which also afflicted her younger, similarly-confused sister Mimi.
There are many positive moments with her older sister and her grown-up son whom she neglected in his youth and who eventually played percussion in her last bands. There are a number of reconciling moments which help to aid the prevailing mystery and gloom of Joan’s inner life.
The viewer gets to see many off-stage, behind-the-scenes moments of the popular entertainer who had no problem entertaining audiences in the thousands, but could sustain a single relationship, one-on-one with anyone else.
Joan’s has been a strange journey, for sure, and despite an archived room full of interview tapes, photos, and her drawings, her central, recurring mystery remains unresolved, though she has made her peace with everyone including her unsupportive older sister who didn’t want to live under Joan’s shadow, her ambiguous but influential deceased mother, and her even more bizarre, egoic father.
I should add that Dylan’s influence, as in several songs, photos, and a painting included, looms quite large. For anyone who ever was unsure–yes, he was the love of her life and he did ‘break her heart’ after she had shamelessly promoted and accompanied him everywhere back in the mid-’60s.
There is a vagueness that periodically colors all of this–as in her letters to home and the somewhat inaudible read-aloud diary entries and self-pitying tapes sent to her family. The last half-hour, focused on the possible sex abuse, has a weird muzziness of inconclusive, imperfectly remembered moments from her own past with her father, which I found unconvincing and far from conclusive. What likely happened to Mimi once doesn’t necessarily transfer to her mostly uncertain sister.
What the viewer is left with are two docs on Baez, the second which purports to be more truthful. I am reminded of a concluding line from John Ford’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That may make the more/most sense to her long-time fans (as well as–I might add–the many fans of Buffy Sainte-Marie, another famous folk singer of the sixties, who did much for natives and native causes, but has been recently taken to task by the media. It is important to remember what made these people special, important, and great in the first place.)