For the last 60 years, it’s been hard to see Joan Baez as anything other than a saintly figure, or certainly, at the least, a beatifically placid one. Early on in the new documentary “Joan Baez I Am a Noise,” over shots of its subject being swarmed by fans at the height of her early-‘60s success, the present-day Baez quips that much of the public came to view her like the Virgin Mary — and confesses that, with her head swelled by fame at the time, she was not much inclined to disagree. But occasional flashes of ego seem like the least of the psychological problems dogging the singer, as portrayed in a music doc that starts out as a fly-on-the-wall view of Baez’s farewell tour and ends as an extended look at family trauma and recovery from mental illness.
Launching at the Berlinale, then followed by a stop at the more music-focused SXSW Film Festival, “Joan Baez I Am a Noise” almost has more to bite off than one biopic can effectively chew. It’s easy to imagine a worthy documentary being made just about what it’s like for a veteran performer to decide to retire, as Baez did with one last run out on the road in 2018-19. Another approach would have simply surveyed the entirety of her career as the 20th century’s premier female folk singer, including being dead-center at the civil rights and antiwar movements.
“I Am a Noise” gets in a good dollop of both those things before making a dramatic and unexpected turn in its last act into the story of Baez coming to believe late in life that she and one of her sisters, fellow folkie Mimi Farina, were sexually abused by their physicist father in their childhoods. Directors Miri Navasky, Karen O’Connor and Maeve O’Boyle finally do an impressive and affecting job of hitting all those marks, in a film whose chief sin may just be that it doesn’t run about a half-hour longer.
The film’s fascinating prologue has Baez speaking to, and physically illustrating, what’s necessary for a world-class, gold-throated singer to go out on the road in her late 70s, including sessions with a vocal coach meant to determine whether songs’ keys need to be lowered or there’s a path back to the high notes of youth and middle age. If you’re a fan of the many aging superstars facing these same questions, you might wish this section of the doc went on much longer and fully showed what went into the singer’s fulfilling swan-song tour. (Read Variety’s review of her final 2018 L.A. concert appearance here.)
But there’s no less intrigue when the documentarians flash back to her early life — when Baez emerged as a virtual overnight sensation, out of a family that had brilliance to spare and some sisterly competitiveness to go with it. Whether crooning at Carnegie, marching in Selma or dueting with paramour Bob Dylan, she wasn’t just a Time magazine cover subject but a poster girl for a kind of wholesomely sexy liberal social consciousness.
And, as we now learn, she was all but literally demonized the entire time. Speaking about Mimi, Baez says, “She was just wired to be unhappy.” It quickly becomes apparent that Baez could say that of herself, although any explanations for the “wiring” will wait till later in the film. The trio of filmmakers have been given access to a storage unit full of archival material Baez held onto, including home movies and highly candid handwritten letters, along with drawings vividly illustrating her moods that have been turned into animation for the film by Eat the Danger. “There’s a powerful lot of anger lurking just under my big smile,” she writes, as she’s contemplating a divorce from Vietnam activist David Harris in the late ‘60s, “and I’m having touble getting my hands on it so I can wring it out and hang it in the sun.”
Panic attacks manifest as lifelong stomach aches. There are practical career matters dogging her, too, as the end of the Vietnam war leaves her lost after being “addicted to activism.” And some actual drugs — after a comeback in the mid-’70s with “Diamonds and Rust,” she admits blowing all that goodwill in a subsequent eight-year reliance on quaaludes (and even blames one hilariously bad album cover, in which she posed in aviator goggles, on that substance).
Things come to a crux when Mimi tells of being French kissed by her father, a recollection that leads Joan to pursue her own path of thrice-weekly therapy, including hypnotism, which has her remembering her own inappropriate experiences with her dad — which the film does not go into great detail on. The doc includes letters and voice messages from her father in which he accuses Joan of having fallen prey to false memory syndrome, but Baez tells the filmmakers today that if even 20% of what she remembers is true, that’s damning enough.
The narrative doesn’t stint on Baez’s own perceived lackings as a parent: Her son, Gabriel Harris, is playing percussion on her farewell tour, but tells the filmmakers that his famous mother wasn’t really there for him as a kid. Baez reiterates throughout the film that she’s great with a crowd, just not with individuals. Whether that dichotomy between her public and private “mothering” — common to preachers and politicians as well as entertainers — comes out of early abuse or some other pre-existing condition is not for the film to resolve, of course.
“I Am a Noise” ends both sadly and happily. The rueful part is in Baez’s lament that there are no siblings or parents left with whom to compare experiences anymore. (Early in the film, there are appearances by Baez’s mother, known as Joan Sr., and another sister, Pauline. The two of them died in 2013 and 2016, respectively, an indication that at least some filming occurred years prior to the doc’s farewell-tour time frame.)
The cheerful part of the denouement does feel credible, though, as by the end Baez seems content in having found where her darkness came from. Of course, she fooled us for six decades, seeming far more at peace and wizened than she now reveals she really was. Did all those therapeutic revelations finally let her grow into her own mature, earth-mother image? It’s sure likely to feel inspirational for anyone struggling with similar mental-health issues without having had the benefit of that tranquil-star façade. As it turns out, “We Shall Overcome” begins at home.