Joan Baez: I Am a Noise

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


When I was in college, Joan Baez was singing “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song that became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember back in August 1963, the 22-year-old folksinger leading a crowd of 3,000 in singing “We Shall Overcome” at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
She was inspiring, a melodic Madonna with long black hair and bare feet and a social conscious that overwhelmed her audience. Her heart seemed as large as a VW bus.

If you share my memories, there’s a new documentary about Joan Chandos Baez you will want to see.

“Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” is screening at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27, at Tropic Cinema as the final film in the Fourth Annual Key West NOW Film Festival.

The film opens with a clip of a very young Joan singing. Then, it offers 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.”

Turns out, Baez’s life has been more like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or “All My Trials” than “Oh Happy Day.”

Directors Miri Navasky, Karen O’Connor and Maeve O’Boyle faced quite a challenge, cramming Baez’s musical bio, her social activism, and her psychological traumas into a one-hour-and-53-minute film.

Starting out like a concert tour film, we see her 2018-2019 farewell stage appearance at age 78. But rather than a series of canned musical performances, the doc veers into her personal life, sharing intimate details of her relationship with Bob Dylan and her marriage to David Harris. Then, the film heads down the rabbit hole, exploring a life filled with depression and anxiety.

“Hearing her speak of how Bob Dylan broke her heart is fascinating, especially as we note the painted portrait of him hanging over her piano – and the fact that she speaks of him frequently,” observes one fan. “She did meet her husband, journalist David Harris, while both were in jail, which has made for a fun story over the years, and we learn that their son Gabriel accompanied her on the final tour.”

Along the way, we hear from Bill and Hilary Clinton, sister Mimi and brother-in-law Richard Farina, Dylan of course, and her Vietnam activist husband David Harris, among others.

Oddly, the film never mentions Joan’s performance at Woodstock. However, we do see her at Martin Luther King’s “Freedom” speech.

At 18, she became an overnight sensation thanks to the Newport Festival and her appearance on the cover of Time Magazine.

Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. And she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 Grammys. But perhaps her favorite tribute was the inaugural Amnesty International Joan Baez Award in 2011, recognition of her human rights work with Amnesty International and for the inspiration she has given activists around the world.

In “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise,” we see the singer at the end of her 60-year career. She takes a “deep look inward as she tries to make sense of her large, history-making life, and the personal struggles she’s kept private.”

Variety sums it up: The dénouement 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.”

Then, there was her 1973 divorce. Although amicable, she sadly wrote in her autobiography, “I am made to live alone.”

All this led to three-times-a-week therapy sessions and even therapeutic hypnotism.

At one point she wrote, “There’s a powerful lot of anger lurking just under my big smile and I’m having trouble getting my hands on it so I can wring it out and hang it in the sun.”

As the 20th Century’s leading female folk singer, Baez found herself in the middle of the civil rights and antiwar movements. She has an impressive legacy of “activism and social consciousness through the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests, prison reform, environmental issues, and other causes, making her easy to admire.”

One moviegoer notes, “A lot of things are hinted at but left unresolved. But I’ll forgive a lot; those of us who protested in the 1960s were all somewhat in love with Joan Baez.”

The film’s title comes from something she wrote about herself as a young girl. But the title has it right, “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise.”

“It’s a beautiful noise/
And it’s a sound that I love/
And it makes me feel good/
Like a hand in a glove/
It’s a beautiful noise/
Made of joy and of strife/
Like a symphony played/
By the passing parade/
It’s the music of life …”

I hope she overcomes.

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