Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound
A Film by Mary Wharton
(Razor & Tie)
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2009, Volume 16, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed December 16, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
Itís hard to believe that more than 50 years have passed since Joan Baez first stepped onto the public stage and became the voice of Americaís conscience. From her early support of Martin Luther Kingís civil rights campaign to the platform she provided to the suffering citizens of Sarajevo, there hasnít been a major social-justice movement in the past half-century that Baez hasnít championed. She primarily has been identified with the 1960s, and consequently, some of her recent charitable projects havenít been at the forefront of the mainstream radar. In her new documentary How Sweet the Sound, Mary Wharton took the steps that are necessary to reverse this trend.
Although many of her contemporaries have retired, Baez continues to record new albums whenever the mood strikes her. She also maintains a modest touring schedule in order to stay in touch with her fans and her Muse. Gone is the neurotic, needy young artist who was captured in D.A. Pennebakerís Donít Look Back. Instead, How Sweet the Sound presents Baez as a happy, mature woman who has come to terms with her past and is enjoying her life more than ever. Baezís poise and balance are enviable, and as the film unfolds, her story is transformed from one about her career and its impact on popular culture to one about how to live a clear and functional life.
As someone who has been highly involved in nearly every social movement of the late 20th Century, Baez has encountered and interacted with many of Western societyís most respected artists, politicians, and thinkers. The overall effect of hearing so many of them sing her praises is staggering. Consequently, it doesnít take long to realize that no matter how one feels about Baez as a singer and songwriter, her contributions to social causes will be the thing for which she primarily will be remembered. Hers has been a truly multidimensional life, and it has played out as far from the star-maker machinery as one could possibly imagine.
In addition to her own candid interviews with Baez, Wharton hired Rolling Stone journalist Anthony de Curtis to talk with a host of í60s luminaries. These include David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and, most surprisingly, Baezís celebrated, former-flame Bob Dylan. It is immediately apparent that Baezís peers hold her in extremely high regard. Crosby, in particular, goes to great lengths to impress upon the viewer how deep her commitment was to fighting the Vietnam War. He recounts the story of how Baez was arrested for civil disobedience, and how, after her release, she immediately rejoined the protest.
The section of How Sweet the Sound that undoubtedly will be of most interest to viewers is the segment that deals with Baezís relationship to Dylan. After enduring years of cheap shots and shared public acrimony, it is heartening to hear the duo speak of the stress, misunderstandings, and youthful folly that tore them apart. Dylan is uncharacteristically candid in his discussion of Baez. He admits that he was sorry when their relationship ended, and he explains that what happened was, in part, a product of his inability to manage his exploding career.
Baez, in turn, states that she tried to make Dylan a spokesman for a generation. She confides that she often didnít see him for the person he was. Decades later, she regrets trying to force him into a role that didnít suit him. The footage from the 1970s Rolling Thunder Revue concerts, during which Dylan and Baez were reunited on stage, is revelatory. Baez recalls that it was the first time that she enjoyed herself while on the road.
In her art as well as in her life, Baez has always blurred the line that divides her personal and political ideas. Nowhere has this dynamic come more into play than in her marriage to anti-Vietnam War activist David Harris. Their relationship, which Harris jokingly refers to as a wartime romance, galvanized and gave tangible form and direction to Baezís activism. It also solidified her role in the peace movement. Baez and Harris were divorced long ago, but they reconnected for a scene in How Sweet the Sound. The impression they create is of two mature individuals who have managed to put their past into context. They now enjoy and respect each another for the time they spent together as well as for everything that since has taken place.
It has been a long time since such a carefully conceived film about a musician has been released. By interspersing contemporary concert footage with period news clips of Baezís harrowing travels on behalf of an array of social issues, Wharton impresses her audience not only with the continuity of Baezís vision but also with how it intersects with her subjectís career as a musician. How Sweet the Sound will change the perspective of anyone who hasnít thought about Baez for a long time. In Whartonís portrayal, she emerges as much more than an icon from the 1960s.
As a musician, it must be confessed that Baez is only an average talent. She is a credible guitarist who learned to finger-pick before any of her folk contemporaries, and she has always been blessed with a powerful and emotive voice. As an artist who has written very little of her own material, she understandably has not received the accolades that have been awarded to many of her peers. Still, the message of How Sweet the Sound is that life is about balance. In the end, Baezís shortcomings as a musician are irrelevant because itís hard to fault her as a human being, one who is fully alive in the world into which she was born. Music is only part of Baezís portrait, and she has always done the rarest of things by reflecting through her actions the noble sentiments that she has expressed in her music.
How Sweet the Sound is a beautiful and life-affirming film. With the passage of time, the imbalances and sorrows that plagued Baez during her early years appear to have been rectified. She has arrived at a place to which most people can only hope to aspire. How Sweet the Sound is ostensibly about Baez, but ultimately, it is about a lot more. It is an intimate portrayal of growing up, taking stock, and accepting responsibility in every aspect of life.
Of Further Interest...
How Sweet the Sound [CD/DVD Set] is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box