Janis Joplin, who died 43 years ago, was an active recording musician for only three years. She produced four studio albums, a mere two of which were under her own name, and only three of which came out in her lifetime. She composed a handful of songs, and her lone No. 1 pop hit, “Me and Bobby McGee,” was a posthumous release. Yet despite such a limited commercial output, Joplin’s status as a cultural icon has remained almost weirdly steadfast throughout the decades. And as her legacy continues to be explored in theater, music, books and (most contentiously) film, the question of how best to remember the towering vocalist remains open for debate.
It was just this fall that a jukebox musical, “A Night With Janis Joplin,” moved from its launchpad at the Pasadena Playhouse to Broadway. It was the second musical to be produced in cooperation with the Joplin estate, after the bio tuner “Love, Janis,” based on a book by the singer’s sister, Laura Joplin. The estate also has commissioned a biography, to be written by Holly George-Warren and a yet-untitled documentary project, to be directed by Amy Berg and produced by Alex Gibney and Jeff Jampol of Jampol Artist Management, which manages the Joplin estate.
Though critics have hailed Mary Bridget Davies’ performance as the titular belter, “A Night” has been criticized in some corners for its avoidance of some of the more secretive or unsavory aspects of Joplin’s life, opting instead to explore her music and her prime influences like Bessie Smith, Etta James and Nina Simone.
“With all of the artists we manage, whether it’s Jim Morrison, Tupac, Otis or Janis, I think the biographical details are important, but sometimes you just want to celebrate the music,” Jampol says. “Part of my job is trying to take this magic and this alchemy and connect it to younger people the way it connected to me. I wanted to show how Janis was connected to those who came before her, and then how they’re connected to Janis. Yes, she was bisexual. Yes, she died of an accidental heroin overdose. Yes, she had a lot of sadness in her life. But on this particular project we wanted to focus on the music and where it came from.”
Yet the squabbles over the stage show illustrate a key dilemma common to many of these posthumous Joplin projects. When an agency is tasked with maintaining the commercial viability of a long-dead artist, it behooves them to burnish the legend. This issue is particularly acute when, like Joplin, the artist’s body of work is relatively small, and has yet to see the sort of exhaustive, vault-clearing posthumous releases that have kept such stars as Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur in the commercial conversation long after their deaths. The impulse to paint an accurate picture of a frequently messy life can come into direct conflict with the need to inculcate appreciation and interest in younger generations.
And perhaps no area of Joplineana is more fraught with conflict than the Janis biopic. Frequently announced and just as frequently stalled, various competing Janis biopics have been circling for decades, and for several generations of actress-singers, just being considered to play the great singer has almost become a rite of passage. Most recently, Lee Daniels claimed a Joplin biopic would be his follow-up to “The Butler,” with Amy Adams set to star. Before that, Adams was purportedly scheduled to star in a Fernando Meirelles-directed version of the project, which was before that set to star either Renee Zellwegger or (the late) Brittany Murphy. There’s also Sean Durkin’s “Janis,” announced last year, which has Broadway chanteuse Nina Arianda lined up for the title role. Previously, Penelope Spheeris alternately had Zooey Deschanel and Pink set to star in her version of the Joplin saga, and even earlier, the late 1990s saw two competing biopics in pre-production that were set to star Lili Taylor and Melissa Etheridge, the latter of whom even sang with a reconstituted version of Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, to prepare. (And this is without even mentioning such unofficial bio projects as Bette Middler starrer “The Rose” and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s turn as a heavily Joplin-inspired singer in 1995’s “Georgia.”)
The contractual complications of mounting such a project with full cooperation from all involved are always numerous, and a person familiar with negotiations notes that there are a number of longstanding legal agreements that could make this one particularly onerous. There is also the matter of securing rights to her music, always the sticky wicket of biopic production, which would be even tougher due to the fact that Joplin’s signature songs were composed by such a wide range of songwriters.
As Jampol notes when asked his take on the various film projects that have arisen, “Janis is a public figure, and anyone can talk about her. All I can say is that I’ve seen many (film projects) talked about throughout the years, but very few people have actually talked to us.”
Given the number of rock star biopics that have lensed without full rights clearance or estate cooperation — such as the Hendrix pic, “All Is by My Side,” which bowed at this year’s Toronto Film Festival —the fact that such a project has never been launched despite such obvious, widespread interest is an issue worth considering.
“I have a sneaky suspicion that some of the trouble has to do with the difficulty of Janis’ character,” says Alice Echols, author of 2000 bio “Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin.” “You do have to think of the extent to which she was this outsized female character who took up a lot of space in ways that could put men off. She could be prickly, very in your face. She certainly had a tender side, but she couldn’t get across through her looks, so she felt like she had to get through by projecting a kind of raunchy, red-hot mama image. In researching my book, I encountered a number of men who found that aspect of her less than totally appealing.”
What’s more, she notes, though Joplin has become an indelible American cultural fi gure, her songs are hardly standbys of modern-day radio.
“Compared to her stardom, she’s musically largely invisible,” Echols says. “Certainly nothing compared to the extent that you still hear the Doors or Jimi Hendrix all the time. If we were constantly hearing her on oldies radio, this may have been a movie that had gotten made sooner.”
As longtime music journalist and former label exec Harvey Kubernik notes, biopics on Joplin have theoretically been in the works since he was the West Coast A&R director for MCA Records back in the late 1970s.
“A lot of time has passed, and yet she hasn’t been the target of too much revisionist history,” he says. “There are enough filmmakers, road managers, bandmates, her sister — there are so many still around, that you can’t rewrite her story too much.”
But aside from her immense voice and stage presence, as well as her somewhat reductive status as hippie-chick par excellence, what is it about Joplin’s persona that attracts such intense interest?
“In the case of Janis, we look at her as a legacy,” Jampol says. “She’s an icon of hope to a lot of women, we found. Because here is a woman who wasn’t objectively beautiful, didn’t come from privilege or money, who didn’t marry up or any of those things. … She wore her heart on her sleeve. She wanted acceptance and love and was completely vulnerable about that. But the interesting thing is she never compromised her vision to achieve any of this.”
Those elements of privilege and authenticity are likely key to her appeal for potential actors, Kubernik agrees.
“It’s such an overused term now, but she truly was a free spirit onstage,” says Kubernik, who saw Joplin perform. “And even though she was driven, and wasn’t naive, and understood the industry and management, she certainly wasn’t a careerist.
“So I think a lot of actresses tend to be drawn to the kinds of people who didn’t have the things they currently enjoy. They didn’t grow up like Janis, they didn’t hitchhike down the highway with Chet Helms, they never saw any of the blues people who Janis shared bills with. But they all want to portray her because she had so much soul.”
What: Janis Joplin receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
When: 11:30 a.m., Nov. 4
Where: 6752 Hollywood Blvd.