Without Janis Joplin, there mightn’t have been an Amy Winehouse. The two most prominent female members of the so-called “27 Club” may have worked in different musical registers (while both appropriating a heavy dose of soul), but it was Joplin who blazed a trail for female artists like Winehouse to defy industry standards of appearance, performance and behavior. So it feels like a breach of historical order that Amy Berg’s thoroughly absorbing documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue” arrives on the heels of Asif Kapadia’s comparable “Amy.” Boasting equivalent depth of research, extensive access to an intimate personal archive, and a selection of galvanizing performance footage, Berg’s film is no stylistic innovator itself, but it’s the satisfying feature-length overview that Joplin’s brief, fiercely brilliant career has long merited. This PBS American Masters entry will take a piece of many a boomer’s heart, especially in ancillary.
Hollywood’s failure thus far to produce a Joplin biopic is something of an ongoing industry mystery, with Jean-Marc Vallee’s planned “Get It While You Can” the latest such attempt to run into pre-production obstacles. Indeed, two of Berg’s own interviewees, musicians Pink and Melissa Etheridge, were lined up to play the singer at some point or another. Joplin’s rapid, reckless ascent from small-town misfit to larger-than-life generational icon, burning brightly before abruptly burning out in 1970, could be the stuff of grand cinematic tragedy. A docu-portrait, however, underlines what a tall order it would be for any filmmaker (not to mention their leading lady) to re-create her peculiar, riveting presence, from that gut-twisting primal howl of a singing voice to her feverishly possessed onstage manner and shyer, spacier private persona; the only star of a Janis Joplin film could ever be Joplin herself.
Berg does take the liberty, however, of appointing a Joplin proxy of sorts for her pic. That would be the far mellower singer-songwriter Chan Marshall (better known to many as Cat Power), whose dulcet Southern tones are employed to read out a number of excavated letters written by Joplin to friends, lovers and family members. Casually delivered, and exposing a far more naive, approval-seeking side to the rock rebel than her public life suggested, this correspondence serves as the film’s binding narration, maintaining the subject’s singular point of view amid a bevy of talking heads.
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The letters also provide welcome insight into a family life and formative upbringing that may be less familiar to Joplin fans than her glory years in the late-1960s music scene. Joplin’s younger siblings Linda and Michael offer particularly generous, considered reflections on a sister who spurned her parents’ values even as she sought their pride in her achievements. Ambition, she wrote to her mother, ultimately amounts to “how much you need to be loved.” It scarcely needs to be stated, then, that Joplin had ambition in spades, though her conservative hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, was not the place to act on it. The film relates how the teenage Joplin was kicked out of the school choir and cruelly bullied for her liberal politics and unglamorous physical appearance, while glimpses of her personal scrapbooks reveal her profound body-image insecurities.
As for so many of her contemporaries, self-realization lay in San Francisco, where she experimented with her sexuality (Berg secures a number of affectionate testimonies from partners both male and female) and, less healthily, acquired the on-again-off-again heroin habit that would ultimately be her undoing. After a broken engagement to an unfaithful b.f. — just the kind of emotional rupture that can kickstart a career in the blues — the obsessive fan of Bob Dylan, Odetta and Billie Holiday committed to her own full-time music career, joining scrappy all-male band Big Brother & the Holding Company before rapidly dwarfing the collective in terms of magnetism and ability. Via candid accounts from the original Holding Company members, Berg details the conflicted collaborative process by which the band propelled Joplin to stardom — catching the eye of Columbia Records president Clive Davis and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, both interviewed here — before a solo career came knocking.
As extensively and intelligently as Berg covers the tumultuous push and pull of Joplin’s evolution as a celebrity, rock geeks may wish for more in-depth appraisal and anatomy of the music itself. Ample concert sequences provide shiver-inducing evidence of Joplin’s unique gifts as an interpretive vocalist, though her songs and albums go largely unspecified and undiscussed — save for a glowing reflection by Kris Kristofferson on her permanently possessive cover of his composition “Me and Bobby McGee,” which posthumously became her biggest chart hit. (Joplin’s own occasional songwriting, surprisingly, is never a point of focus.)
Berg does include some tetchy, rough-edged studio footage covering the conflicting creative decisions that bore her startling recording of the Gershwin standard “Summertime.” It would be rewarding to see more such process-oriented material, but it seems churlish to take issue with the wealth of content Berg has amassed. The technical assemblage thereof is solid, distinguished by crisp sound work and fleet editing that carries the film to an earlier-than-expected conclusion.
Perhaps that’s fitting, given Joplin’s own abrupt departure: Her death by overdose is covered here with tact, brevity and a pleasing lack of morbid deliberation. (In any case, no sentimental, decades-after-the-fact expressions of mourning could be as moving as an archive nugget, placed in the closing credits, of Joplin’s stricken mother, Dorothy, reading aloud a note of condolence from a devastated fan.) “I managed to pass my 27th birthday without really feeling it,” states Joplin in one of her letters home, read at the film’s outset; by its end, auds are hardly likely to match her detachment.