JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)
Written and directed by Amy Berg
FilmRise, 105 minutes, Not-Rated (nudity, drug use, language)
* * * *
Depending upon where you live, your local PBS affiliate will or will not be airing this Janis Joplin bio-doc. Joplin has been dead for 45 years, but she's on the fringe of so many sex, drugs, and rock and roll-fueled culture war issues that she's still such a hot-button topic that not every public television station is willing to take the heat. Don't look for a Hollywood treatment any time soon, as two planned Joplin films have suffered epic delays. Amy Berg's documentary is your best bet for a while and is, by far, the best treatment to date of the mercurial Ms. Joplin. Rent it if it isn't aired.
If you wonder why Joplin continues to generate such passion, Berg's film offers some clues. Janis Joplin (1943-1970) was never the poster girl for anyone, and she confounds more expectations than she realizes. Most people know the story of Joplin's troubled ugly duckling childhood and her 1962 middle-finger-raised flight from Port Arthur, Texas and its racist, sexist jerks. Except that's only part of the story. She remained devoted to her family and wrote frequent letters home, often filled with regret for whatever disappointments she may have caused. As the conventional narrative goes, she landed in San Francisco, fell in with the counterculture, and developed the booze-and-drug habit that eventually killed her. Convenient story, but Joplin was a user in the early 60s before she left Texas. And, as it turns out, she loved the counterculture lifestyle, but saw it as more of a means to a very non-countercultural end: material and commercial success. In fact, Joplin was never a very good spokesperson for anything other than her music. She had scores of lovers, a short list including: Peter de Blanc, Peggy Caserta, Dick Cavett, Eric Clapton, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Ian, Kris Kristofferson, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Joe Namath, and Jae Whitaker. Berg's film has been criticized by the left for doing a drive-by on Joplin's bisexuality, and by the right for glossing her promiscuity. Actually, Berg gives it exactly the right touch; Joplin simply indulged her desires of the moment and was neither an advocate of LGBTQ rights nor for the sexual revolution. Like most things in her life, sex was highly personal. The one exception was that Joplin had no time for racists—a good reason to get the hell out of Texas back then. Her unique sound was built upon a foundation of Billie Holliday, Odetta, and Big Mama Thornton; she never hid her profound admiration for Otis Redding and she aspired to be like Aretha Franklin.
Berg's film telescopes Joplin's early days, takes us to her breakout moment at Monterrey Pop in 1967, and lets us experience her time on top, but she doesn't sugarcoat her use of meth, booze, and heroin. What we get instead is the portrait of an artist only truly herself when on stage and wracked by guilt, doubt, loneliness, and ennui when not performing. We hear from former bandmates in Big Brother and the Holding Company (1966-1968) and the Kozmic Blues Band (1969-70), and intimates such as Cavett, Kristofferson, Whittaker, Bob Weir, filmmaker D. A. Pennebacker, and surviving family members. Beck also draws upon rich archival and concert footage, including harrowing clips from Woodstock that presage her demise. The overarching portrait that emerges is one of pride for her success, but deep insecurity.
The film's arc and vibe are very reminiscent of Amy, the Amy Winehouse bio that many readers will recall I disliked. What's different? First of all, Joplin appears as both architect and victim of her fate, not merely a tragic figure. Second, Berg isn't afraid to show Joplin at both the apex and the nadir of her craft. I'll elaborate below, but Berg's film casts doubt on Joplin's place in the musical pantheon. Third, she does a far better job of placing Joplin within the context of her time and culture. Finally, Berg's Joplin is simply a more complex person than was Ms. Winehouse, which provides material for a richer script. Asif Kapadia's Amy is slicker and has prettier surfaces, but Berg's film has more depth.
Postscript: Joplin's Place in Rock History
Like many Baby Boomers, I was gob smacked by Joplin when I first heard her. Is there a "greatest" list anywhere that does not list her at or near the top of the heap? Rolling Stone lists her as the 28th best vocalist of all time (Aretha Franklin is #1) and the 48th greatest performer. That's as low as any rating I've seen. Billboard ranks her # 5 and Popcorn # 1.
Amy Berg's film made me wonder if we need to rethink how highly Joplin is regarded. There is, after all, a world of difference of being able to sing and knowing how to sing. It was only toward the very end of Joplin's life that she seemed to grasp that difference; before then she often used shouts and screams to mask the fact that she was improvising on the spot because she didn't really know where she wanted to take her songs. (Check out her incredibly sensitive take of "Me and Bobbie McGee" as she first sang it on a train full of musicians hurtling across Western Canada—a moment of insight rather than raw power.)
All rankings systems are arbitrary, subjective, and highly debatable. Janis, like Aretha, had a voice only Mother Nature could have created, but I'd reverse the Rolling Stone formula and rate her among the greatest performers of all time. But would I say she was a better singer than some of those the magazine ranked below her–Mavis Staples, Grace Slick, Gladys Knight, Patsy Cline, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell? Nope. Add names such as Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, Bjork, and Christina Aguilera, and you see the problem. Berg's subtitle, Little Girl Blue infers her assertion that Janis was "Queen of the Blues." Ummm…. "no" on that as well. (Koko Taylor? Dinah Washington? And Bessie Smith will always be the "Empress" of the blues.)
I don't mean to infer that Joplin doesn't deserve to be exalted as among the great, but all performed music is a combination of talent, formula, and hype. Joplin had so much chutzpah that sometimes she blinded us to the fact that a lot of what she was doing was as gaudy and overdone as the brightly colored boas in her hair. But there's not a thing wrong with being considered among the greats!