During her career, Joan Baez led the struggle for freedom across many stages: in the March on Washington, in her protests against Vietnam, in her political advocacy for women’s rights, in her establishment of The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. The opening scenes of Joan Baez: I Am a Noise feature black and white footage of one of Baez’s early performances of “Oh, Freedom”; she conveys poignantly the yearning for freedom, the dangers of freedom, in her performance. The music continues to play over footage of her driving and gazing somberly out the window as the film elides from music into the voice of a therapist counseling her to let go: “letting go of being anybody for anybody else.” There’s a world weariness to those opening scenes, and this weariness marks Baez’s own struggles to find freedom for herself, throughout her life.
More a montage of scenes than a linear documentary, the film cuts from early home movies, performance clips from the 1950s and 1960s, Baez’s drawings and art work from her childhood and from other periods of her life, and clips from her Fare Thee Well tour in 2019. The voices in the film also come from the singer’s large collection of audio tapes from her therapy, her family therapy, and we hear the voices of her sisters, Pauline and Mimi, and her mother, each trying to come to terms with the cracks in what seems to be a perfectly manicured and happy family. Many of the drawings in the film come from Baez’s recent book, Am I Too Pretty to Fly?: An Album of Upside Down Drawings (Godine). In this fashion, the film conveys that Baez continues to struggle to free herself from her memories, to be free from the anxieties and panic attacks from which she began to suffer when she was 13.
The film quite beautifully depicts Baez’s kinetic attempts at freedom—dancing in the streets of Paris to drummers in the street, dancing to the music in the open fields surrounding her home, swimming laps in her pool—and the accompanying psychological unfreedom that continues to haunt her even now. From the opening scenes, Baez is haunted by memory and the ways that memory imprisons us. She reflects early in the movie about the freedom that she could gain after writing her own story and concludes that nobody will ever know her true story because “we want to remember what we want to remember.” She observes: “As the years go by, it gets more and more difficult.” Not only is one’s story more challenging to write because one doesn’t remember as clearly, the memories themselves become more difficult to deal with.
The most difficult memory Baez confronts focuses on her sister Mimi’s accusations of sexual abuse against their father, Al. While Al denies that he French kissed his youngest daughter, Baez’s mother defends her husband. The voice tapes reveal a family struggling to be free of such dysfunction, but never succeeding. Baez remains estranged from her father, even as she tends to her mother in her final years, ushering across life’s threshold into death in some of the film’s most moving scenes.
Even in her early years with Dylan and in her marriage to David Harris, and as a mother, she’s constrained and vulnerable, still trying to find her way in the world, even though by then she’s well-known, immersing herself in various fights for freedom. The footage of Baez participating in Civil Rights marches conveys her courage in the face of persecution, but Baez’s comments in the footage continue to depict an uncertainty about her identity and the value of her mission and music. She sums this up during a reflection on her trip with Dylan to London in the early 1960s, and she remarks: “I was just this little folkie running around; I didn’t belong.”
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise depicts, above all, a woman struggling to discover where she belongs. There is little celebration in the film; there is always a feeling that the rug is just about to be pulled from beneath the singer’s feet. She reflects on her trips to Paris in the 1960s: “If I had too much fun, I would automatically get sick. It would get a form of darkness that was pretty awful.”
This is not to say that Joan Baez: I Am a Noise is a dark film, though it moves between euphoric moments and dysphoric moments. The beauty of the film lies in Baez’s willingness to embrace her vulnerability and to share the excruciating sense of being trapped by memories, being imprisoned by emotional dysfunction. As always, Baez flies free in her songs, in her dancing, in her body’s embrace of the sky, the earth, the water.