Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Written and directed by Amy J. Berg
Disarming Films / Jigsaw Productions /
FilmRise / MVD Visual
FilmRise / MVD Visual
103 minutes, 2015 / 2016
If you look at the director’s credits, most of Amy Berg’s films are documentaries about children and women who have been abused by the system, especially by those in power in a religious setting. It kind of makes sense why she’d choose this topic because Janis Joplin’s life was also a series of failures on the part of support systems as she reviled in the church of Rock and Roll.
For anyone who grew up listening to her music, the stories of rejection in high school and in the town of Port Arthur, Texas, resonates. That’s part of why the cult of Janis started, because people of her generation and beyond heard and saw in her the pain, which gave voice to their own, possibly for the first time; this is especially true for women.
Now, there have been umpteen books and documentaries about Joplin over the years since her death in 1970, and even Bette Midler’s film, The Rose is somewhat based upon her, but most try to paint her as a victim, be it of her culture, of the time of drug experimentation in San Francisco, of bad management (such as Albert Grossman), of other musicians, of the music lifestyle, record producers, a failed relationship, whatever. Despite “Little Girl Blue” in the name, Berg takes a somewhat different and more even-handed approach, which makes it a better film.
Berg does not shy away from anything, be it Joplin’s bisexuality (though barely), her drive to fame and success, her fragile ego, and her substance ab/use, which makes the film all that more compelling. She paints Janis as a human, not just a myth. Part of the way she does this is by vocalizing some of the letters she wrote over the years to her family in Texas, spoken by Chan Marshall (better known as musician Cat Power), who gets the tone and intonation spot-on, without it being a caricature impression.
Actually Berg makes many good choices throughout. For example, she hits the high points in Janis’s rise, such as Monterey and Woodstock, but also doesn’t dwell on them by looking at some questionable choices, giving some balance to her life and career.
There are many archival images and videos, both as a young’n and throughout her famed career, both onstage and off. I’m a fan of Joplin’s music and talent, but I would be hard pressed to say I was an expert on her. I’ve seen lots of performances, thanks to YouTube and the like, but there were a lot here that I had never seen before, including some interviews both on national and local television (e.g., Dick Cavett) and regional press.
Along with that, there are numerous interviews with those who were there with her, including her family, childhood (and beyond) best friend, members of all of her bands (Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band, Full Tilt Boogie Band), Kris Kristofferson, Country Joe MacDonald, Dick Cavett, Clive Davis, and so forth. But rather than the standard talking heads, she makes the talker seem more intimate with strong close-ups, and by incorporating what they are saying into archival footage rather than just watching them jaw.
There are also some cool extras, so even if you have seen the airing, it may be worth checking out anyway. First one up is titled “Avalon vs. the Fillmore,” at 4 minutes. Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead), among others, discuss the difference in atmosphere between the two clubs, and how Janis got kicked out of one of them (not telling which). At nearly 1-1/2 minutes, the remaining members of BBHC get together for this film in “Big Brother Acapella,” and do a modified version of “Papa-Om-Mow-Mow.” It’s almost surrealistic (but no pillow).
Especially powerful is the next 5-1/2 minute “Influences,” in which women musicians (Chan Marshall, Pink, Melissa Etheridge and Juliette Lewis) talk about what Janis meant to them, and what it is like to give all and then be alone at the end of the show (Melanie Safka has a great song about this phenomenon called “Leftover Wine,” FYI). For the last extra, the 4-minute “Walk of Fame Ceremony” follows Janis’s brother and sister to Hollywood in 2013 to see Clive Davis uncover her star. As one fan rightfully states, “The Olsen Twins have one and it took them this long for Janis? Shame.”
This documentary has been heaped with praise since its release and airing on PBS’s “American Masters” program. I’m not surprised, as it’s one of the better rock bios I’ve seen in a while. It clearly shows Janis as a flawed human without either excusing her behaviour, or pointing a finger.