The Gabriel Garcia Márquez quote that appears at the start of Joan Baez I Am a Noise — “Everyone has three lives: the public, the private and the secret” — is an apt choice for this introspective docu-portrait of the era-defining musician and activist. The veteran folk singer’s seeming self-possession and the crystalline purity of that voice thrust her into the spotlight at 18. But there’s a world of difference between that serene image and the troubled woman who initially wrestled with the privileges of fame and even now, six decades later, still struggles with demons that come and go.
Baez gets remarkably frank about her long history of therapy and her sometimes disturbing excavations of childhood experience, which makes this intimate film by Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle and Karen O’Connor feel more thorough as a personal reflection than a career summation. But anyone with an interest in the key artists of the counterculture movement will find much to appreciate here.
Joan Baez I Am a Noise
The Bottom Line
Memories that still elicit diamonds and rust.
The film starts with an early black and white clip of Baez singing an a cappella version of the Civil Rights anthem “Oh, Freedom,” a spiritual she performed at the 1963 March on Washington. That choice deftly establishes the symbiosis of Baez’s music and her lifelong involvement in nonviolent protest. But her words in a present-day interview point to the hidden persona behind her public profile: “I could write an entire history, and no one will ever know if it has anything to do with fact, because we remember what we want to remember.”
As the soothing voice of a therapist coaxes her to let go of the physical, of being anybody, and the camera pans around a room crammed with files, audio and video tapes and journals, it becomes clear that this will be a difficult act of remembrance. Having conceded that memory is selective, often filtering out the pain, Baez’s aim here is to re-examine the past and make peace with it. That process is paralleled and prodded by the decision, soon after she turned 79, to wrap up her career with a farewell tour, acknowledging that it will be hard to give up the adulation.
While the device of the therapist’s guiding words is overused and at times didactic, it does fuel the graceful back-and-forth flow between past and present in O’Boyle’s editing. Likewise, the inventive animation interludes, spun out of original artwork from Baez’s journals.
A significant memory of her youth is her Mexican-born father, a physics researcher, teaching Baez and her sisters about the imbalance between the haves and have-nots, giving her an early awareness of other people’s sorrows and cementing social justice as the driving force of her life. But that idealized image of her father becomes clouded in later years as Joan and her sister Mimi dig into repressed memories.
The other defining factor of her childhood is the start of emotional difficulties stemming from feelings of inferiority and anxiety attacks. Being called a “dumb Mexican” by rich white kids at school didn’t help.
But Baez began playing a ukulele and singing at lunchtime, and quickly grew to like being the center of attention. When the family moved from Palo Alto to Boston, she started strumming a guitar and singing around Harvard Square, segueing into performing at the Cambridge folk venue, Club 47. A year later, in 1959, she was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, which made her a star overnight. “For whatever reason, I was the right voice at the right time,” she says, revealing that her sudden celebrity made her flip from feeling inadequate to believing she was the Virgin Mary.
Some of the more interesting personal reflections about her early life concern the ways in which Baez’s sudden fame affected her family. Her father felt the money came too easily to her, without the requisite work, while her sisters were overwhelmed by the attention she received. It sparked what she believes was a lifelong resentment in aspiring performer Mimi (an audio clip of them singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” together has gorgeous harmonies) and causing the other sibling, Pauline, to pull away until much later in life.
Baez’s habit, starting in the early ‘60s, of audiotaping her letters home while on tour adds to the wealth of archival material and helps illustrate the disconnect between the poised stage performer and the depressed insomniac quietly falling apart in her private life. She admits she’s “not very good with one-on-one relationships, but great with one-on-2,000.”
Baez has fond memories of a year-long relationship with a free-spirited woman while in her early 20s. But anyone acquainted with her history won’t be surprised by her ambivalence about her relationship with Bob Dylan, to which she famously paid barbed tribute in one of her biggest hits, “Diamonds and Rust.” Her imitation of “Bobby singing Joan Baez” is hilarious.
She acknowledges that she didn’t have the politically charged material to convey her beliefs until Dylan came along with stirring songs about protest and justice. But after she helped kickstart his career by introducing him onstage at her concerts, he distanced himself from her while on a 1965 U.K. tour. She describes the demoralizing feeling of being suddenly shut out of a boys’ club: “I was just this little weird folkie, tagging along.” Baez did join Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour ten years later, but that was enough of a traveling circus to make her feel more included.
The other significant relationship Baez goes into is in the context of her vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. She was briefly married to 22-year-old political activist and journalist David Harris, who was serving 20 months in prison for draft resistance when their son Gabriel was born. But they split up just months after his release. “Yes, he was too young, and I was too crazy,” she now reflects.
The doc alludes to but doesn’t elaborate on a strained period between Baez and her son, who played drums and percussion in her international touring band. Nor does it mention her romance in the ‘80s with Steve Jobs, when she was 41 and he was 27.
There are moving sections on the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. in raising her political consciousness, starting when she heard his “I Have a Dream” speech and continuing as they became friends and she performed at demonstrations he organized. But the film arguably could have benefited from contextualizing Baez among other singers associated with the protest movements of the time, like Odetta, Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger, not to mention Woody Guthrie before them.
However, the filmmakers are unequivocal about their focus remaining steadfastly on Baez herself and some of the most illuminating moments are in her quiet self-assessment, for instance noting the “raggedy” edge that has crept into her vocals after decades on the road. She’s also forthcoming about periods in which her career was floundering, shaking her head with amused embarrassment at the recollection of doing a truly terrible cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” at a 1986 Amnesty International benefit.
Audiences wanting more of Baez’s music might be disappointed by the mostly fragmentary nature of the clips seen and heard. But there are lovely samples like “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” on stage in Oakland, rendered more rueful with experience and accompanied by delicate finger-picking guitar; and an emotional “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” in a final concert at New York City’s Beacon Theater, her voice aged but still beautiful.
Baez speaks freely about what she describes as her syndrome of euphoric highs followed by inevitable descents back into darkness. But I Am a Noise traces a satisfying arc, taking her to a point where she feels less encumbered, no longer carrying the world on her shoulders. The final image of her dancing on the dirt track to her California home while calling her dog in for the night suggests her arrival at a place of well-earned peace.
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