Her future boyfriend and sometime musical partner Bob Dylan was still in high school in Minnesota when Joan Baez first played Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass., in 1958 at age 17. We see her there, and then, in “Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound,” airing tonight on PBS as part of the series “American Masters” -- a teenager with long, dark hair; a Spanish guitar; and a mature mezzo-soprano voice. The next year, she appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and became famous. She made records that went gold. She was on the cover of Time.
Her early stage fright made Baez seem doubly serious, and she was pretty serious to begin with, besotted with ancient songs of love and death but also with Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In high school in Palo Alto, she refused to participate in an air-raid drill, denying “the whole possibility that this made any sense at all,” and made the local papers. Thus was set the pattern for a lifetime.
If you were a Dylan fan who preferred the swinging Symbolist to the Prince of Protest who preceded him -- if you were, like, more “Desolation Row” than “Blowin’ in the Wind” -- you might have regarded Baez as being overly political and insufficiently cool. It is true, as she says herself, that she wanted him to more enthusiastically share her enthusiasms. But differing interests split many young couples, not only those whose camera-ready love would follow them in pictures and recordings all the days of their lives, and right into this documentary.
As with most attempts to fit a life into the space of a television show -- especially a life that includes performance clips -- “How Sweet the Sound” is a blur that comes into focus intermittently. But if it doesn’t fully give her context, it does give her her due and shows a spikier, rougher, funnier and sexier character than her reputation as a folk priestess (“a pristine little Virgin Mary” is how she puts it) would suggest. Baez, who is 68 now (and ever on tour), is not precious about herself or coy about her professional ambition or her personal shortcomings, which at times amounted to the same thing.
Still, like most episodes of “American Masters,” it is fundamentally a testimonial. There are not a lot of commentators here, but they do include Dylan, who has only admiring things to say about Baez’s voice, guitar playing and song selection. He likes the way their voices work together, but you wouldn’t know from his comments that they ever were, as Baez says, “an item.” Former Byrds Roger McGuinn and David Crosby praise her, as well, as do the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who knows her from the civil rights movement, and Steve Earle, who produced her most recent album.
Baez’s life has unrolled along parallel tracks of music and politics -- “If you’re committed to singing meaningful songs, you also have to be committed to leading a life that backs that up,” she says, and we see her working for social justice in America and around the world.
But the film’s best moments reveal the plain person between the activist and the singer, as in home movies of Baez romping with late sister Mimi Farina, or when she and ex-husband David Harris -- a movement leader who spent much of their marriage in prison as a draft resister -- discuss their failed relationship. A legend is never as interesting as the life it contains.