On October 4, 1970, in Los Angeles, California, Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven. At the time, she was in her prime, creatively and professionally, and had just finished recording the album, “Pearl.” The record would reach, and maintain, the number one spot on the Billboard chart for over two months, and went on to be certified quadruple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. The well researched, 103 minute documentary, “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” from director Amy Berg (Franca), presents an all encompassing study of blues singer Joplin’s life.
The film originally premiered on September 6, 2015 at the Venice Film Festival, and contains a number of interviews. Offering insight on Joplin is her sister, Laura, and her brother, Michael, who speak about their relationship with their older sister, and about their parents, who loved Janis, but weren’t enamored with her life choices. Additional commentary is derived from, amongst others; childhood friends; and former musician’s Joplin worked with, such as members of Big Brother and The Holding Company – the band she joined in 1966, which helped launch her career. Everyone who was interviewed, not only discussed their association with the singer, but provided their honest take on why they believed Joplin behaved the way she did. Furthermore, the documentary contains archival interviews, as well as extensive concert footage, however, the narrative of the film is primarily advanced by Joplin herself. Self reflective letters which outlined her fears, needs, and also her ambitions, which she wrote to family, friends, and lovers, prior to her stardom, as well as during, are read via voice-over by singer and songwriter, Cat Power (Chan Marshall). (As an aside: During the film, Dave Niehaus is both discussed and interviewed. Janis met him while sunbathing on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The two instantly hit it off, and she traveled around with him for a period of time, but the relationship didn’t last. Many people have speculated that the pain Janis felt from losing Dave, was one she was never able to fully recover from.)
The film follows a chronological structure. The early part of the documentary discusses how Joplin was bullied and socially ostracized by her classmates at the Port Arthur, Texas high school she attended. When she returned for her ten year high school reunion, she still acted as if she were an outsider. Her singing had brought her worldwide acclaim and a legion of fans, but at no time did she embrace her celebrity and rub it in her former tormenters’ faces. The camera crew that documented the event, shows an almost shy, tight lipped, Joplin. When asked about how she felt about being back at the school, or how she was treated when she was a teenager, she deflects the questions. Joplin would rather the interviewer ask her former peers how they perceived the events of the past. (As an aside: Berg’s film doesn’t mix in a tremendous amount of nostalgia or history for the time period of the 1960s. There are certain things mentioned, like how Joplin was a vocal supporter of Civil Rights, at a time when most in her town, were not standing up to support those sorts of initiatives).
As with most people, there were two sides to Janis Joplin. She was often times, when not on stage, drunk or high on drugs. There was a needy quality to her that craved attention, even after she would leave a concert venue, where people had been vociferously applauding. Additionally, she was depressed, haunted by memories of her pre-fame days, and was suffering from low self-esteem when it came to how she viewed herself, especially her looks. Conversely, she demonstrated, time and again, that she had exceptional vocal talent as a singer, was very ambitious, and had a driving determination to turn her musical dreams into reality. When she was composed, she could articulate things in a clear, concise way, that showed she was a highly intelligent person. Furthermore, she also had a strong sensitive side to her personality, which proved in various instances to be both an asset and a detriment.
From her first interest in singing, which had an inauspicious start, to her post-high school days and her arrival in San Francisco – where for the first time, Joplin truly felt she belonged – the film delves into all aspects of her life. Berg showcases the singer’s time with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the short lived solo career that took place after she left the band. I feel to get into more specifics about each part of the documentary would do a disservice to those of you who are interested in seeing the film, which is currently on Netflix.
This will be a film that will probably appeal more to people who were fans of Janis Joplin at the time, or for those who have simply grown to become admirers of her music. For those who have no familiarity with Joplin and her music, you certainly will learn a great deal from investing your time in watching this. I think Berg made the right choice, in not sugar coating anything, and presenting a complete picture of the iconic singer.