New Janis Joplin doc captures a little piece of her heart

Music documentary

Written and Directed by Amy Berg

I’m giving Janis: Little Girl Blue an A, but I’m not sure if I’m praising filmmaker Amy Berg or the subject of her documentary, Janis Joplin. I think it’s a little of both. If nothing else, Berg should be praised for concentrating on a great artistic and cultural figure, and then doing her more than justice.

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. And she did, dying of a heroin overdose in 1970, at the age of 27.

Janis (I feel odd calling her Joplin) left behind a handful of albums and recorded concerts (some filmed) that electrify the soul. Her voice was a cry for help, a carnal wail, and a call for revolution. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, this film will help you understand her, and introduce you to one of the greatest and most influential performers in popular music.

As you would expect from a documentary about a performer who died in living memory, Berg’s film contains plenty of concert footage, letters home, and interviews with people who knew and loved her. But the filmmaker understands that we love Janis primarily for her music, and therefore keeps the songs front and center. The music constantly plays as a background to the movie, and it almost always seems to be just the right song.

The interviewed subjects include Clive Davis, Bob Weir, Country Joe Macdonald, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, Kris Kristofferson, and Janis’ two siblings. There’s some archival interview footage with Janis herself –including one very funny moment with Don Adams of Get Smart–but she really only reveals her heart in the letters she writes to her family. And, of course, in the songs. Even the ones she didn’t write tell her story. She owned every song she recorded.

Much of the old footage here has been seen before, especially in Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary, Janis. Berg has a better sense of character and story telling–as well as four decades of historical perspective. And she includes a disheartening clip of Janis’ messed-up performance at Woodstock that I’m pretty sure I never saw before.

I said earlier that we love Janis primarily for her music, but we also love her for what she represented. Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943, her plain looks and progressive views made her an outcast. So she came to San Francisco, embraced free love and a free life, and became a star just as the Summer of Love began. As much as anyone, she represented the sexually-charged, essentially humane, ecstatic joy of the hippie movement.

But in the end, she represented the negative side of that movement as well, dying alone in a motel room from one too many hits of smack.

What would have happened had she cleaned up and lived a long life? Would her voice have blown out before she was 35? Would she have matured as an artist and found new ways to use that voice? One interview near the end suggests that she might have done just that.

Those were the questions I asked myself as the movie came to its end. Janis Joplin was a bright comet that streaked across the sky. Amy Berg has captured the best record yet of that ball of fire.

After its theatrical release, Janis: Little Girl Blue will screen on the PBS series American Masters. I suspect it will be heavily censored.