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Television review

Baez’s complicated persona fleshed out

By James Reed
Globe Staff / October 14, 2009

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As sirens wailed in the night and bombs dropped around her in 1972 in Hanoi, North Vietnam, Joan Baez suddenly realized something she had spent most of her early career forgetting: She was a mortal and not just an icon who carried the world’s burdens on her shoulders.

That sounds like a cliche, but it’s one of the many fascinating revelations of “Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound,’’ the latest installment of PBS’s American Masters documentary series that debuts tonight on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

Baez’s extraordinary life - as a musician, activist, pioneer - has played out before cameras, on more than 30 albums, and in her own candid memoir, 1987’s “And a Voice to Sing With.’’

But Baez as a private person - as a mother who worries she neglected her only son in service to other people’s causes, as an aging single woman who finds solace in a treehouse on her California property - is an endearing side we rarely witness.

Baez, the 68-year-old matriarch of folk music, is partly to blame for that. Throughout her 50-year career, she has exuded a supreme confidence and imperiousness that made her an indelible ’60s legend and a lightning rod for detractors like cartoonist Al Capp, who notoriously skewered her as the hypocritical character “Joanie Phoanie.’’

Yet in “How Sweet the Sound,’’ which was also released yesterday on DVD with an accompanying soundtrack, Baez admits she was battling a lot of demons in those days. At the height of her fame, she suffered paralyzing stage fright, to the point of sometimes leaving a performance mid-song to cry or splash water on her face and then return to pick up where she had left off.

Through incredible archival footage, we finally get a glimpse of a teenage Baez performing at Harvard Square’s Club 47, a pivotal time we rarely see. There’s also video of her as she marches with Martin Luther King, sings harmony with Bob Dylan, performs a cappella on a Sarajevo street in 1993, and poignantly reunites with her ex-husband, David Harris.

Given the vast arc of her career, there are key moments missing, like her performances at Woodstock and Live Aid, and more about Baez’s underrated songwriting would have been appropriate. But the film is still a comprehensive portrait of a complicated persona. One of the first things we hear from Baez, whose frank interview for this film was conducted by veteran rock scribe Anthony DeCurtis, is how she has always struggled with other people’s perceptions of her versus who she really is.

Disappointing, however, is the lack of other female musicians commenting on Baez’s legacy. Everyone from Emmylou Harris to Bonnie Raitt has credited Baez as a defining influence, yet no one addresses that or the obstacles Baez surmounted as a strong-willed woman.

The most enlightening commentary comes from a new interview with Dylan, who seldom speaks about their relationship anymore. Astonishingly, he mentions how he loves the song “Diamonds and Rust,’’ Baez’s damning account of what went wrong between them. “To this day it still impresses me,’’ he says.

Baez has spoken at length about Dylan over the years, often impersonating him in concerts as she sings his songs, so the film’s “he said, she said’’ moments are especially enticing. Baez’s voice-over is heartbreaking at times: “I was crazy about him. We were an item, and we were having wonderful fun.’’ Cut to Dylan a few scenes later: “I was sorry to see our relationship end.’’

As the film concludes with a look at Baez’s recent tour and latest album with Steve Earle, she appears to have come full circle - no more stage fright, no more pressure to take up every cause that comes her way. Most telling of all, she’s at peace with herself after half a century of searching for it.

“I think I’ve constructed a life in which I don’t feel lonely,’’ she says, just one more sign that this icon really is made of flesh and blood.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

JOAN BAEZ: How Sweet the Sound

On: WGBH (Channel 2)

Time: Tonight at 8

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