7th May 2016
Compared to the most famous of the late, great musicians who have the eternal misfortune of membership to the now infamous 27 Club, fairly little seems to be widely known about Janis Joplin. While the passing of time has delivered a firm cultural acquaintance with the impact of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and even the relatively recently passed Kurt Cobain, the same cannot be said of the Texan girl with the powerful screeching vocals who arguably blazed a trail as one of the earliest female rock stars. This perhaps can be partly explained by the seemingly perpetual shelving of a Hollywood biopic; a long promised project – with the lead role at one time or another slated for the likes of Zooey Deschanel, Pink and Brittany Murphy – that has failed to emerge.
However, with Amy J Berg’s excellent documentary ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’ one needs no more an effective place to start in getting a grasp on Joplin’s bright but all too brief life. An adroitly balanced mash up of concert footage, archived interviews, talking heads of family and closest friends and the reading of letters (narrated by Cat Power) written by an increasingly famous daughter to her parents back home, deliver an insightful, entertaining and poignant overview of Joplin as both musician and the brash but fragile young outcast from Port Arthur, Texas.
What we learn from Joplin’s early life offers compelling and melancholy insight to both her passion as a performer and a lifelong vying for acceptance, a struggle at first alleviated and then exacerbated by substantial heroin use. Born in 1943, it appears that Joplin was a misfit from the start; everything from her unconventional looks, her strong and fluid sexual appetite, her artistic temperament – and even her pro-integration liberalism in a city with an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – seemed to rage in contradiction against the parochial boundaries of her hometown. We hear that Joplin was constantly bullied by her peers and a teary friend recalls the “saddest thing I ever saw” when a university newspaper voted her “ugliest man”. Another friend tells us that Joplin “couldn’t figure out how to make herself like everybody else”.
The film includes stirring concert footage – including her breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and a rather inebriated appearance at Woodstock- where Joplin’s visceral performance and vocal flair, even on a television screen fifty years hence, is palpably clear. While we see an article describing her gravelly, emotive bellow as a “raw and desperate mating call”, the film’s consistent highlighting of Joplin’s perceived lack of acceptance both from without and within suggest it was also something else: That of a fierce exorcism of personal suffering.
While Joplin found like-minded souls, social belonging and fame as a musician when she fled Port Arthur for Austin, Texas and more significantly San Francisco in 1963, her fragility and its suffocation through heroin loomed forever in the background. It was her music and success, first with Big Brother Holding Company and later while backed by the Kozmic Blues Band and then Full Tilt Boogie, that gave her life meaning; however, the down hours were a problem and the void that remained once audiences went home was one all too often filled by drugs. On the subject of drugs, the film’s last words are from John Lennon who, during an interview with Dick Cavett, makes interesting comment on drugs as primarily a societal problem rather than a personal one.
Aside from its interest and enjoyability, there is of course much poignancy and sadness here. Throughout the film, Joplin comes across as likeable and genuine; a fun, loudmouth Texan with a charmingly impish grin concealing the brittle soul beneath. We also hear from a number of admirers and former boyfriends – one in particular embodying a potential for lasting love thwarted by her addiction – who sadly contradict her apparent lack of self-worth.
A compelling account of the short but fiery existence of another great talent lost tragically too soon.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is out on DVD and VOD on 9th May courtesy of Dogwoof.