I Am a Noise Not a Conventional Music Documentary




Joan Baez: I  Am a Noise (2023)

Directed by: Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle, and Karen O’Connor

Magnolia, 113 minutes, not-rated.

★★★ ½


Although she was one of my favorite interviews, I have mixed feelings about Joan Baez: I Am a Noise. Some reviewers have called it a nostalgia trip, but that’s inaccurate. It’s a look into Baez’s psyche that reveals things that few of her fans knew about, including her long struggle with depression.


Baez (b. 1941) is the middle of three daughters born to Albert (1912-2007) and Joan Baez, Senior (1913-2013): Pauline (1938-2016), Joanie, and Margarita (1945-2001), best remembered under her married name, Mimi Fariña. Joan had dark thoughts mixed with joy from an early age, partly because she experienced prejudice due to her mixed heritage–her father was Mexican and her mother white–and because Albert, a physicist, worked for UNESCO and the family moved a lot.


Here’s where things get very murky and the documentary could be sharper in clarifying. It’s tempting to suspect that Joan was bipolar, but that term never appears in the film. Was there family trauma? Mimi alleged that Albert inappropriately kissed her, which both he and his wife vigorously denied and which bears hallmarks of a therapist’s “planted” memory. The film settles for an explanation of mutual family hurts, but of what family is that not true?  


What emerges is that Joan had swings of amazing creativity–in drawing, poetry, and journaling as well as music. Much of this is told via home movies and tapes from family members and from Joanie’s guided imagery/meditation therapy sessions. Again, it’s hard to know to make of this. Even the documentary title is mired in ambiguity. It is a quote from Joanie in which she insists she’s a noise, not a saint. Ahh, but what a noise.


What we know for certain is that she played ukulele as a child, saw Pete Seeger when she was 13, and bought her first guitar in 1957. What happened next would confuse saint and sinner alike. In 1958, she played her first gig at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts–Albert got a job at M.I.T.–and was soon playing there twice a week singing a repertoire of Child ballads and songs inspired by Seeger, Marion Anderson, and Odetta. In 1959, Baez appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and an instant star was born. She was dubbed the “barefoot Madonna,” made the cover of Time, had three gold albums, and was the hottest ticket in “the folk revival.” Baez admitted to once having had a female lover, but the one that changed her dramatically occurred when a scruffy songwriter appeared in her life: Bob Dylan. She caught him in his protest phase and they were an item from 1961-65.


Baez grew up in a pacifist Quaker household, but Dylan was part of her move into social justice movements–until he wasn’t. There has long been a vampiric aspect to Dylan and he drifted away from Baez and social causes about the time Baez did a deep dive–civil rights, the peace movement, environmentalism…. She befriended Harry Belafonte, marched with Dr. King, married draft resister David Harris with whom she had her son Gabriel, and was soon as well-known for outspoken activism as for her glorious voice. Those on the right lampooned her as “Phony Joanie.” She told me that they hated her because she wasn’t phony like them. Yep!


Things grew cloudy again when the Vietnam War ended. She was part of the drug-fueled Rolling Thunder tour of 1975-75, dabbled in now-embarrassing disco-laced pop, and was creatively and personally adrift for a time. She told me that a key moment back occurred when she sang in Czechoslovakia and knew from her reception that the Iron Curtain would soon fall.


I Am a Noise has musical clips, but it’s not a music documentary. It’s more a confessional and how she found inner peace, dealt with the pain of losing her brother-in-law, rivalry with Mimi, estrangement from Gabriel, Mimi’s death, that of her parents, and retirement. I’m no psychologist, but I’d hazard that much of what happened to Joan Baez is that she never got the chance to work out her childhood blues before stardom claimed her incomplete self. I couldn’t be happier that she now feels centered. A confession: I was never a huge fan of her vibrato-heavy soprano. My fondness runs for alto voices, but whatever one prefers, she has never been a Phony Joanie!


Rob Weir  


A New Altan Record For St. Paddy's Day







What could be better for St. Patrick’s Day than a new Altan album? And what could be more appropriate than one named Donegal, the Ulster County from which the band hails and which has produced some of the finest music in the Emerald Isle?


The usual formula for an Altan album is a “big set” of raucous tunes followed by a Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh song. (For the non-Irish speaker, that’s roughly, Mah rayad’ nah weenie, the Irish equivalent of Margaret Mooney). She has been both one of Ireland’s finest singers and fiddlers for nearly 40 years. Donegal instrumentals can often be differentiated from others in Ireland by the use of two fiddles instead of one. Within Altan, the literal second fiddle is usually Ciarán Currain, who is also the band’s bouzouki player, though sometimes young fiddle whiz Clare Friel does that duty. That’s much the same way that it depends on schedules whether Mark Kelly or Dáithí Sproule is the guitarist. Martin Tourish mans the squeeze boxes.  


Notice I said “usual formula. Donegal opens with “TheYellow Tinker,” which was also on the band’s The Red Crow (1990). It’s a reel, but in 1990 it was played fast but on Donegal it’s an unhurried slow reel. Don’t write it off as getting older. “The Donegal Selection” contains three fast reels that are joyous and chase their own tail as only reels can do. The middle one is titled “Tommy Peoples” and pays homage to the great Donegal fiddler (1948-2018) of that name.


In many ways, though, Altan seeks a different vibe on Donegal. Just about the time I went into mourning for the retirement of Clannad, Altan has caught much of their vibe. That’s no accident; Clannad was also a Donegal band and Ní Mhaonaigh is pals with Clannad’s Moya Brennan, whose vocal style is similar, as well as Moya’s younger sister Enya. “Faoiseamb a Gheobhasda” has a discernible Clannad feel in its delicacy, its moody interludes, and swelling instrumental meshes. These dovetail beautifully with Ní Mhaonaigh’s bird-like vocals.


What’s an Irish album without a set of jigs? Tunes beginning with “Port Arainn Mhór” fit that bill, but to return to an earlier point, they are lively but with a lighter touch than burn-down-the-hall big sets that bring the noise. Close your eyes and you could imagine  Ní Mhaonaigh and Brennan sharing leads on “The Barley and the Rye.” It’s as if Altan is inviting us to feel and dream rather than dance and shout.


There are exceptions to this. The fiddling on “Gabhaim Molta Bride” is melancholic with a tinge of Roma tears and a perfect example of why Ní Mhaonaigh is so revered in Irish music. And yes, Altan will make you jump up and kick your heels on the four-reel “Letterkenny Blacksmith combo. What a delight that after 15 studio recordings, numerous compilations, and a live album that Altan still has tricks up its collective sleeve.


Rob Weir  


Hear Maired and Moya  share a song here. 

Altan in truncated band for TV. Mairead goes to town.


The Holdover a Pleasant Film, but not Oscar Worthy



The Holdovers (2023)

Directed by Alexander Payne

Focus Features, 133 minutes, R (F-bombs, drug use, drinking, and “nudity”)



The Holdovers is a feel-good film. It has been compared to It’s a Wonderful Life for it fairy tale transformations and its message that virtue trumps material success. Let me be upfront about it. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, even though it’s about a teacher. I jotted down my ten favorite teacher movies–from Conrack and Dead Poets Society to Stand and Deliver and Whiplash–and nothing about The Holdovers tempted me to alter my list.


It follows classics professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) from the final days of the 1970 fall semester to the end of Christmas break. Hunham is old school, the sort whose C- is the equivalent of an A- from anyone else. He’s grumpy, stern, exudes a strange body odor, has a lazy eye, and is absolutely intractable about his standards. Hunham once went to Barton and he has ideas about what a “Barton man” should be, hence he’s  just flunked the son of a U.S. Senator and major donor. Barton is a prestigious New England private school–fictional though much of it was filmed at Northfield Mt. Hermon and Deerfield academies–but times have changed and Hunham has not. He especially has it out for students Teddy Koutnze, a rich airheaded punk, and Dominic Sessa (Angus Tully), who is bright, but also arrogant and disrespectful.


As a not-so-veiled put-down, Headmaster Hardy Woodrup, a horse’s patootie, sticks Hunham with “holdover” duty; that is, supervision of students who have nowhere to go during the break. At the last minute, Tully becomes one of them and is not at all happy that Hunham expects them to study during the break. The campus is fairly remote, the town has limited options for a teen such as Tully–Shelburne Falls is the stand-in–and students young and old feel like prisoners. One by one the students get reprieves until just one is left: Tully. That leaves him, Hunham, Joy , campus cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Randolph), and African American janitor Danny.  


One reviewer called The Holdovers “diagrammatic,” meaning its plot draws on a host of clichés, devices, and pieces of other films that define the hard teacher with secrets/young man in need of growing up genre. That strikes me as fair commentary. In other words, director Alexander Payne opted to play things safe. The chaotic 1970s, for instance, make little more than a drive-by appearance beyond Mary’s loss of her son in the Vietnam War. You can tick off the film’s sugarcoated situations: teen rebellion, reluctant bonding between Hunham and Tully, Hunham as mentor, revelations of why teacher and student are socially gauche, psychological growth, and full-scale borrowing from the 1939 classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips.


If it sounds like I’m being Hunham-hard on the film it’s because it was predictable, but could have been much more. The problems lie with David Hemingson’s script not with its top-flight acting. Paul Giamatti is a vastly underrated actor and has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Holdovers. The film is also up for Best Picture, Hemingson for Best Original Screenplay, and Ms. Randolph is the odds-on favorite to win for Best Supporting Actress. It would be a shame, though, if any of them won. To put it bluntly, The Holdovers lacks enough gravitas to be feted. (Odds are certainly against it as Best Picture, as Payne wasn’t nominated for Best Director. It happens, but it’s rare a film wins but its director isn’t up for an award.)


The very R rating of The Holdovers seems a contrivance to give it more heft than it has. It rests on a torrent of F-bombs, drug use (pot and lithium–what next, Ibuprofen?), and “nudity,” an ancient Greek vase and an over-the shoulder peek inside a “skin” magazine. Dear MPAA: F-bombs are as common as lottery tickets, pot is legal most places, lithium is a prescription drug, and the statute of limitations for ancient Greek nudity passed 3,000 years ago.


The Holdovers is a perfectly good little movie that will give most viewers a case of the warm fuzzies, its semi-sad ending notwithstanding. Enjoy it for what it is: a decent night on the sofa that won’t tax your brain very much. I hope that someday Paul Giamatti lands a role that will yield an Oscar. But not for The Holdovers.


Rob Weir