‘Joan Baez I Am a Noise’ Is a Revelation to the Casual Listener, and a Breakthrough for Longtime Fans

The title of “Joan Baez: I Am A Noise” comes from a teenaged Joanie Baez’s notebook. The future folk icon claims she wanted to be the center of attention and was, even in the bigoted high school she attended in Palo Alto, Calif., playing ukelele between classes by 10th Grade. But the sentiment is egoless. A sound, as intimate and engaging as it can be, comes from fingers or throats, and lingers until the waves pass. It has no human personality, and the singer has many. Baez put intent into the sonics, and as personal as some of her songs continue to be, they are created for other people’s ears, not the one with the mesmerizing vibrato. 

Baez was practically raised to think of the less fortunate with a greater intensity than of herself. Her high school notebook says she wanted to make “other dots” in the universe a little bit happier. It is a belief which never faltered, and it becomes infectious during the viewing of “I Am a Noise.” Baez remembers her mother, Joan Baez Sr., as beautiful, unafraid of the law as she participated in civil disobedience. Her father, Al Baez, was a Stanford scientist who co-invented the X-ray microscope and expanded his daughters’ world view, taking the family all over the earth to show them how people are the same everywhere. For Joan, it’s the noise that counts.

It is harsh to hear the epithets thrown at the young half-Mexican guitar stylist, but a rush to hear Baez remember proudly asserting her heritage. It is heartbreaking to learn the depths of the damage panic attacks can wreak on a sensitive and empathetic young artist. Some wounds are not healed, but the singer is ultimately more dedicated to being the healer. Directed by Miri Navasky, editor Maeve O’Boyle, and Karen O’Connor, “Joan Baez I Am A Noise” is immersive, yet respectful, and highly therapeutic. 

It is also fun. Not only the documentary footage of Baez’s earliest shows, but the music which surrounds the subject. The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” plays as the future folk singer is shown as a youngster, and it is a more perfect choice than more recognized hits of the era. That song was an introduction to rock and roll to many people, and Baez has it in her musical roots as much as any folk sound. It’s nice to know that. It really hits home when we hear her and her sister Pauline harmonizing on the Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’ hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?.”

What follows is the excitement of Baez’s first tour, playing her fingerstyle accompaniment impeccably, dancing barefoot (Patti Smith is an executive producer), and singing in both English and Spanish. “I went around looking like the Virgin Mary,” Baez admits in anl interview, “and probably thinking I was.” She has fun on and off the stage, tweaking the noses of the Boston’s Harvard Square guitarists she borrowed stylings from in interviews. She tosses her earnings to less charismatic singers from the balcony of the clubs they are playing. 

Baez tells the documentary interviewers she was surprised to learn that other musicians “hated her for it.” But the viewer fully understands the enthusiasm. Something special shows up at the 1958 show at Cambridge’s Club 47. The New York Times names her an overnight star after her 1959 Newport Folk Festival appearance. She is invited to play Carnegie Hall before she is even 18.

Most people know about Baez because of Bob Dylan. But the world would not have known of the pre-eminent folk voice if he weren’t introduced to stages by Baez. The early footage is viscerally exciting, and grows as the two singers connect on one microphone on the stage. Baez’s onstage impromptu imitation of “Bobby singing Joan Baez” is a major highlight, which shows her unreserved goofy side. 

The relationship then becomes window dressing, as their split is traumatizing for Baez, demoralized at being left out “the boys’ club,” and relegated to some “little weird folkie, tagging along.” It is far more harmonious when Baez joins Dylan’s traveling musical circus, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, in the mid 1970s. She also mines her past for her biggest, and most representational single, the apolitical “Diamonds and Rust,” which came out in 1975.

Baez was destined to become active in the civil rights movement, and “I Am a Noise” presents a unique insider’s view of the sociopolitical music scene of that era. The filmmakers focus on Baez. They don’t put her in context of the artists of the era’s protest movement like Odetta, Nina Simone, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Roberta Flack, or Aretha Franklin. Not to mention early rock ‘n’ rollers, like Bobby Darin and Dion, who’d moved to protest music in the early 1960s. She rose to prominence among much larger names than the documentary depicts.

“I Am a Noise” opens with an a cappella version of “Oh, Freedom,” at the 1963 March on Washington. We see Baez marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1965 Montgomery protest march, and participating in anti-war protests. Off the pavement, the documentary also unearths other steps the committed activist walked. Baez warmly recalls the passing note of “another whole angle on love, another whole angle on sex,” in a relationship she had with a young woman named Kim in the years following her initial fame.  

It is at this point, archival footage catches Baez admitting an ego is beginning to grow, but the newspaper clippings all frame her as the most down-to-earth artist to emerge from the earthy beginnings of the folk scene. The filmmakers make this dichotomy into a game, which Baez can turn into a song, and it plays very well. 

Not so much the story the effect Joan’s fame had on her sister Mimi Fariña. The documentary changes to a minor key, while the competitive sibling singer, who wanted to be a dancer, becomes the footnote Baez predicted. In spite of a long, active career in music. The death of Mimi’s husband, Dick Fariña, is handled with care, allowing a preamble before the details come out, and the many traumas of the Baez family become compounded.

The most revealing archival material is Baez’s cassette tapes of her letters home while on tours. We get a strong sense of what life is like on the road to fame, and the disconnect at the center. Joan admits she’s “not very good with one-on-one relationships, but great with one-on-2,000.” This is foreshadowing of the most subconscious. 

As “I Am a Noise” progresses, idealized images get clouded in repressed memories. Baez is open about her long history of psychoanalysis. The therapist’s narration gets old fast, but the exploration of Baez’s multiple personality disorder is riveting. The animation interludes made from original artwork from the singer’s journals take on new meaning. Baez’s description of her inner landscape, inner self helpers, and the memories they hold is as clear as her account of life under public scrutiny, and equally engaging. 

Memory is selective, and while Baez can endure with bemused embarrassment her cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” at the 1986 Amnesty International benefit, reexamining other recollections offer less peace. The filmmakers don’t explore the issues addressed in Joan Didion’s 1966 “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” essay published in “The New York Times.” They briefly mention Baez’s marriage to anti-Vietnam War political activist and journalist David Harris, then serving 20 months for draft resistance, but gloss over Baez’s relationship with their son Gabriel, who drummed for Baez’s international band, and continued to provide exotic percussion right up to her final tour.  

Early in the documentary, we get a panning shot of a storage unit, filled with files, audio and video tapes and journals, and the feeling there is much more archival footage to be included. No songs play all the way through during the run of the documentary, which is a shame, because the buildups of much of the music is quite cinematic in scope. This might disappoint audiences, who want more vintage clips, but there is a bigger story to tell. Baez has been on the road for most of her life, and at 79 in 2018-19, she embarked on her last final tour. The documentary includes “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” from her final concert at New York City’s Beacon Theater. This alone justifies the title. Baez is a noisemaker.

Joan Baez: I Am A Noise” releases Oct. 6 in select theaters.