8:30pm • Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023 • Michigan Theater
Joan Baez: I Am A Noise is a deeply introspective documentary delving into the life of legendary folk singer and activist Joan Baez. The film navigates the intertwined themes of family history, relationships and mental health running through Baez’s experiences, weaving together an intimate picture of a public icon’s private life.
One of the central themes explored in the film is Baez’s lifelong struggle with mental health. Using archival footage, drawings, diaries and letters between Baez and her family, the film sheds light on the alternating anomie and anguish she faced privately during the peak of her career. Baez’s candid discussions about the feeling of being “broken,” inhabited by a “darkness” she sometimes describes as “demonic” illustrate how she characterizes her own mental health. Baez uses words like “crazy” to describe herself during her son’s early childhood, conveying her feelings of failure and inadequacy as a parent during that time, as well as reflecting cultural narratives about women, motherhood, and mental health.
As I watched the documentary, I kept thinking about how Baez’s pain might have been alleviated had mental health been less stigmatized and better understood earlier in her life. There was a sense of helplessness in the way Baez described her and her sister Mimi’s struggles to understand and live with their mental turmoil. Their experiences represent those of countless others who, even now, don’t have access to a common language to express or understand these problems. My overwhelming thought for the Baez sisters and others was, “I wish we could have cared for you better.”
For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the film is Baez’s exploration of childhood traumas through hypnosis. Using hypnosis, Baez identified abstract parts of her own consciousness, such as “Diamond Joan,” enabling her to piece together fragments of memories from her childhood. The documentary conveys these “parts” with some ambiguity, reflecting the tension around how Baez and her family conceptualized the process. Both Baez and her family sometimes refer to these fragments as “personalities,” elements of a dissociative identity disorder, implicitly discrediting the process with some level of “craziness.”
I appreciate how Baez’s revelatory process challenges conventional notions of reality and what is “really real.” Baez asserts that the experiences she remembers from her childhood are no less “real” to her, even if they didn’t conventionally “happen.” This feels like a particularly valuable perspective in our present historical moment where we are constantly reckoning with past wrongs. Often, it is essential to set aside our personal reality so we can hear and empathize with someone else’s.