Little Girl Blue a Balanced Portrait of Janis Joplin

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. 

Rob Weir

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!    


Beth Gadbaw Debut: Irish Song via Colorado

The Greenfields and the Mountains High
* * *

The Irish skylark is known for both the loveliness of its song and for its distinctive warble. Call Beth Gadbaw a Rocky Mountain version of the skylark. The Boulder, Colorado-based Gadbaw has released a 12-track debut album of Irish songs, nine of which are traditional. The best known of these are "The Journeyman Tailor" and "The Road to Clady." The second is nicely covered–Gadbaw's high soprano dueling with Jessie Burns' deliberately raw fiddle. (Do I detect a touch of tinker styling in it? Yes—I think I do!) The remaining three songs are a W. B. Yeats poem set to music ("Innisfree') and two Gadbaw originals. Her "Grania," honors Grace O'Malley—also known as Granuaile–a female pirate who was thorn in the backside of England's Queen Elizabeth I. On a more personal note, Gadbaw's "Thomas Watson" mine letters sent from Montana to Ireland by her grandmother's great uncle, who fled the Famine.  Appropriately, Gadbaw gives this song a robust treatment, though it's just her voice and heavily accented bodhran raising the ruckus. A personal favorite is "Last Night Being Windy," a jauntily paced traditional that takes full advantage of the instrumentalists that joined her in the studio.     

Gadbaw has a very clear and very high soprano voice with the aforementioned warble. It invites the adjective "sweet" as do most of this album's arrangements. It's also decidedly female in shape—all of the backing voices are female, and women also play most of the instruments. This makes for an intimate album, though one that occasionally cries out for more contrasting bottom to the vocals. (Maybe a few altos?) Still, it's a very nice effort for a debut, so let's not nitpick.  Rob Weir   


Noah Hawley's Before the Fall a Harrowing Page-Turner

BEFORE THE FALL (May 2016 release)
By Noah Hawley
Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Group
400 pages
* * * ½  

How's this for a big opening: eleven people, a doomed flight, two survivors, and an all-night swim. That’s the setup for Noah Hawley’s most recent novel, his fifth.

A private jet sits on a foggy Nantucket runway and impatient David Bateman is about to order the pilot to takeoff as he’s tired of waiting for a late-arriving passenger: Scott Burroughs, an island painter that Bateman’s wife impulsively invited to share their puddle-jump flight to Long Island. Bateman’s not used to waiting; he’s the chief executive of an influential cable news network rather clearly modeled on Fox News. Nor is he accustomed to rubbing elbows with the likes of the shabby Burroughs. In addition to the three-member crew, the only other passengers are Bateman’s wife, his two children, his security guard, and Wall Street high-flyer Ben Kipling and his wife. Burroughs barely makes the flight, but that’s not a good thing—just sixteen minutes later, the plane plunges into Long Island Sound and only Scott and the Bateman’s 4-year-old son J. J. survive; that is if Scott, who is pretty sure his shoulder is broken, can read the fog, guess the right direction to land, avoid sharks, and make the longest swim of his life with J.J. clinging to his back. Okay, this got my attention!

Scott and J.J. do survive, of course, or this book is over in a few pages. What ensues is a nightmare that parallels the crash itself. Burroughs is initially proclaimed a hero, a status he neither feels nor welcomes, but being left alone to contemplate one's fate is not an option in today’s 24-hour thrill parade masquerading as “news.” The more Scott tries to avoid PR, the more slime balls at Bateman’s station grow convinced he’s a phony and that the crash was no accident. That frenzy is whipped to fever pitch by Bill Cunningham, a bloviating shock-jock/mashup of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Cunningham uses innuendo and character assassination to infer that Burroughs might be the reason the plane crashed, either for twisted personal reasons or because he was in cahoots with enemies of the network.

As it happens, though, the National Transportation Safety Board has questions of its own. Is there a link between the crash and the fact that Kipling was under investigation for stock fraud? Why was there a last-minute switch in co-pilots to Charlie Busch, a ne’er-do-well sheltered by powerful family connections? Was it mere coincidence that shake-ups were on board at the TV network? Why can’t Burroughs recall more about the accident? And, of course, there is the small problem of locating the wreckage, bodies, and flight recorder. What ensues is a beat-the-clock search for the truth with human obstacles in the path.

Before the Fall is a page-turner that will make summer beach reader hearts flutter each time a plane flies overhead. Hawley is best known as the creator of TV’s Fargo and if one is honest, this novel often reads like a screenplay treatment. To add fuel to this, it doesn’t even release until the end of May, yet it’s already been optioned to Sony! A careful reader can see a lot of things long before they are revealed and, as I suggested, many of the characters are more mimetic than fully realized—as if Hawley slapped names onto familiar problem personalities: failed artist reexamining his life, former frat brat trying to rekindle lost popularity, self-serving egoist seeking more glory, socialite pursuing cultural capital, jerks further corrupted by money, women making foolish choices…. At times Hawley is way too obvious. Think the co-pilot’s last name is random?

I suspect none of this will matter for most readers. Hawley may not be a literary stylist, but he knows how to tell a compelling story and how to build suspense. This novel grabs you early and doesn’t release its grip. Readers will be like Burroughs in the midst of his swim: too caught up in the moment to consider what is probable and what isn’t.
 Rob Weir