Joan Baez: I Am A Noise goes beyond adulation to uncover the artist’s true, often tragic story

Joan Baez: I Am A Noise goes beyond adulation to uncover the artist’s true, often tragic story
  • PublishedApril 2, 2024

Joan Baez has achieved a lot in her 83 years.

She’s made dozens of albums that have sold millions of copies, their commercial success belied by the cultural and artistic impact the 60s folk singer and her work had on the music world in decades to follow.

Her friendship with, and admiration for Martin Luther King Jr set the standard for her ongoing work in the civil rights and nonviolence movements, not just in the 1960s but throughout her life.

Despite this, recent documentary Joan Baez: I Am A Noise is not a self-aggrandising laundry list of the folk singer and countercultural icon’s greatest moments. It’s a portrait of a woman with complex struggles, and the many fractured relationships that have, in a way, shaped her life.

It begins and ends with her treatment as a child, Baez alluding to memories of childhood abuse she uncovered while under psychiatric therapy in the early 1990s. Those memories regrettably impacted her relationship with her father until his passing.

We hear about the lack of connection with her sister Mimi, who never came to terms with the alleged abuse, Joan’s enormous success, nor the untimely death of her husband Dick Farina, before she died of cancer in her 50s.

She speaks openly of her infamous dalliance with Bob Dylan, a relationship that made headlines at the time, and that Baez says was “demoralising” when it ended.

Decades of distance gives her perspective on why her marriage to fellow anti-war campaigner and father to her son David Harris failed — “he was too young, and I was too crazy” — and Baez reveals a sexual awakening she had at 22 when entering a relationship with her friend Kimmie.

Perhaps saddest is the brief interjection from her son Gabriel Harris, who admits having to reconcile past issues with his mother.

“She was busy saving the world,” Harris says. “No kid can understand that.”

There’s nowhere to hide in I Am A Noise, as Baez reveals letters, sketches, pages from diaries, and even recordings of past therapy sessions to give context to the telling of her story.

Through this material, Baez’s fragile mental health sits at the forefront of this story. Her anxiety attacks, her sensitivity to the suffering of others, the racism she experienced as a child, and the abuse she repressed for many years are all clear to see.

It’s a fascinating angle, given that the public image of Baez was that of a hugely successful recording artist and powerful countercultural figure. Beneath the surface, she struggled with endless mental health issues, manifesting in a regrettable addiction to quaaludes in the 1970s.

The other main takeaway from this portrait of Baez is her addiction to fame. It’s never framed that way, but there are numerous moments where the singer admits that she doesn’t know what it’s like to walk away from adoration and adulation, because she never has.

She speaks about having to adjust her singing style as the curse of age roughens up her voice. She admits that, following the Vietnam War, she became “addicted to the activism”.

There’s still plenty here for music fans. The footage of a teenage Baez playing at Boston coffeehouse Club ’47 in 1958 is worth the price of admission alone: her perfect voice is so singular and absorbing that it’s very easy to understand why her star rose so quickly.

While footage of Dylan denying his relationship with Baez is angering, the way she speaks of her maternal connection to the young singer-songwriter makes it apparent how influential they were on one another.

“We changed each other’s lives and outlooks on music and careers” she says.

For every glorious moment of Baez at her best, we see just as many regrettable moments.

She beams about the success of her brilliant 1975 album Diamonds & Rust, which put her back on the map and made her a bunch of money, while lamenting the awful front cover of 1977’s Blowin’ Away.

Being part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-70s helped her profile, but as we see her stagger off the bus at one stop, it seems the tour may have done her as much harm as good.

We hear her struggle while warming up for a concert on her final ever run of shows, but also see her perform stunningly for famous fans and people who’s lives have been altered by her voice and her work.

Joan Baez: I Am A Noise is a staggeringly honest account of an extraordinary woman’s life. It’s also a reminder that, beneath the surface of even the most enviable of careers, something very dark often lingers.


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