Joan Baez: I Am a Noise movie review (2023)

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.