Writer and Director Amy Berg (“Deliver Us from Evil,” “West of Memphis”) has presented us with a wonderful holiday gift — an intimate documentary that chronicles of the life of one of rock’s most celebrated and talented stars of the 1960s, Janis Joplin (1943 –1970), a woman with a big voice and a big heart. Berg seamlessly weaves video clips of Joplin’s electrifying performances with Joplin’s personal letters to her family (read by Cat Power) and interviews with Joplin, her musicians, friends and her siblings. And although I am a fan, what I learned from “Janis” leaves me with a deeper understanding of her as a person, a personality and as a performer.
Born in Port Arthur, Texas to a buttoned-up family, Joplin suffered through an unhappy childhood in which she was an outsider and the butt of jokes. And she didn’t even realize that she could sing until she was 17 years old. After playing guitar and singing blues in Austin, where she attended college, she left Texas for San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, at age 20. There, she drank, smoked and shot up every available drug until her friends chipped in to send her home to Texas to recuperate. Unfortunately, Joplin’s alcohol and drug use continued until her premature death at 27.
When she returned to San Francisco in 1966, Joplin joined the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. In June 1967 the group had its big breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival and then cut their first album, “Big Brother and the Holding Company,” on which Joplin sang vocal lead. Their east coast tour (where they performed with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield, and Elvin Bishop) and “Dick Cavett Show” appearances (watch for Cavett’s ambiguous quote about their relationship) helped to make their second album, “Cheap Thrills” a huge hit, reaching number one on the charts for eight weeks in 1968. Joplin’s arrangements of “Piece of My Heart,” first recorded by Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister) in 1967 and “Summertime,” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” were hit singles.
After parting from Big Brother in 1969, Joplin formed a new backup group, the Kozmic Blues Band, which was more of a rhythm and blues band than a psychedelic rock group. She was an international star by this time, touring Europe and appearing on television. Her album, “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” contained the songs, “Try Just a Little Bit Harder” (originally sung by Lorraine Ellison), “To Love Somebody” (originally sung by The BeeGees), Rogers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” and “Maybe” (originally recorded in 1957 by that great doo-wop “girl group,” The Chantels).
Janis Joplin’s last band was “The Full Tilt Boogie Band,” with whom she began touring in May 1970. They joined the all-star Festival Express train tour through Canada, performing alongside Buddy Guy, The Band, Ten Years After, The Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, Eric Andersen, and Ian & Sylvia. The movie has some fascinating clips of Joplin with other tour musicians jamming on the train, in which she appears cheerful, relaxed and in her element.
By October 1970, Janis Joplin was dead of a heroin overdose, just 16 days after the death of another rock icon, Jimi Hendrix. Her death is presumed accidental, since her dealer sold her heroin that was much more potent than normal, and other customers of the dealer also overdosed that week.
The posthumously-released Pearl (1971) was the biggest selling album of Joplin’s career and featured her greatest hit single, “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson, a lover of hers in early 1970, as well as her own spot of social commentary, “Mercedes Benz.”
Amy Berg’s documentary, which took seven years to make, and which was produced by Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney (“Going Clear,” “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”) does not sugarcoat any aspect of Joplin’s troubled life, but is still a loving tribute to her. Though the film has a few slow moments and the film of Joplin’s early performances are fuzzy and a bit dizzying on a large screen, “Janis” has captured the essence of one of the few female rock stars of the era. The honest and intimate never-before-published letters, and the interviews with musicians and family add depth and detail. Past films about Joplin, both narrative and documentary, do not measure up to “Janis: Little Girl Blue.”
Joplin’s unique style, her roaring, though tender voice, her rock icon personae, complimented by boas and vintage clothes, and her love of music, made her unique. Her music still sounds terrific. Watching her perform made me happy and sad.
An official selection of 2015 Venice Festival and Toronto Film Festivals, “Janis: Little Girl Blue” will also be shown on PBS’s American Experience in 2016.
© Emily S. Mendel 2015 All Rights Reserved