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Joan Baez: I Am a Noise

One might take a look at this title and say, “A noise? Really?” After all, the voice of Joan Baez is regularly described as one of the most beautiful (okay, some might say prettiest) in popular music. It’s a voice that has uplifted millions over the world and a voice that continues to inspire artists several decades removed from her, including Taylor Swift, with whom Baez has appeared on stage as a guest.

Baez’s self-description comes from a journal she wrote as a teenager. Even early on, the singer was engaged and earnest; the first of such journals she kept all her life was titled “What I Believe.” This movie has three credited directors and draws on footage compiled and shot over a lifetime. I think maybe one reason Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle are credited as co-filmmakers is that some of the footage of interviewees who are no longer with us seems attached to a discrete project that wasn’t meant to be this one. No matter. “I Am a Noise,” beginning with Baez actually consulting a voice coach as she prepares for what will be a “farewell tour” (it was undertaken in 2019 before COVID hit the world), is a coherent, cohesive, and sometimes jarringly frank portrait. 

Over home movie footage, Baez speaks of a “beautiful” mother and an academic father who was determined that his daughters see the world and come to appreciate the beauty of its disparate places and peoples. Baez was an imaginative, creative, but anxious child for whom playing the guitar and singing were forms of escape. She started performing in her teens and found playing for audiences both an escape and an embrace. 

“I’m not very good with one-on-one relationships, I’m good with one-on-two-thousand relationships,” she says at one point in the film. While there’s a good amount of views of her facing an audience, as music docs go, it’s relatively light on actual music. But the times were as much a part of Baez’s socially conscious folk as she was a crucial player in those times, so the music practically suffuses her recollections of being close to Dr. King as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, or of looking after the prodigious and prodigal young Bob Dylan. “I needed to mother somebody, I needed to hang out, I needed intrigue,” she remembers, making their liaison something of a lark before admitting that eventually “he broke my heart.” In shots of her current home, we see a portrait of a stern-looking latter-day Dylan glaring from a wall. 

She got a lot out of being famous, she admits, but the movie implicitly reflects on the things that fame can take away. Things such as, well, personhood. In a sense, at least. What the movie keeps coming back to, doggedly, is family. The peculiar rivalry she had with her younger sister, Mimi, who became Mimi Fariña and became half of a folk duo with the legendary, mercurial singer/songwriter/novelist Richard Fariña. After going through long periods of elation followed by breakdowns and enduring a nearly decade-long addiction to quaaludes, she tried to pry out something inside her, what she called “the kernel” of her interior darkness. Mimi held the key to it, as it happens. This opens up a new and traumatic narrative in the film. 

At the end, as we see her at peace with her son Gabriel Harris, who played in her touring band for the farewell gigs, Baez exhibits admirable equanimity in the face of enormous loss. She arguably changed the world, or, at the very least, positively moved a substantial part of its population. But in the end, she’s just another person who fell prey to the truth that Philip Larkin articulated: “They f**k you up, your mum and dad.” 

Now playing in select theaters. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Joan Baez: I Am a Noise movie poster

Joan Baez: I Am a Noise (2023)

109 minutes

Cast

Joan Baez as Self

Mimi Fariña as Self (archive footage)

Bob Dylan as Self (archive footage)

David Harris as Self (archive footage)

Director

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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