Film review: Amy Berg's Janis Joplin doc digs deep

18 Sep Film review: Amy Berg's Janis Joplin doc digs deep

Documentarian Amy Berg uncovers previously untold stories about Janis Joplin that paint an intimate, affecting portrait of the music legend, writes critic Owen Gleiberman.
By Owen Gleiberman
18 September 2015

The whole world knows that Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose in 1970. But here’s something that you probably didn’t know, and it’s one of many eye-opening tales in the splendid new documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue. The year before she died, Janis got clean. She quit drugs and stayed off them for six months. The man she loved, a globe-trotting counterculture wanderer, had left her because of the heroin. But once she put the high life behind her, she created the greatest music of her life – the blissed-out, soul-shaking songs (Get it While You Can, Me and Bobby McGee) that would become Pearl, her posthumously released final album. As the recording sessions were nearing completion, Janis wanted to celebrate, and that’s when she relapsed, taking out the needle once more to shoot up in her motel room. The day after her death, a telegram from her lover was discovered at the motel desk: he was desperate to reunite with her. But Janis never got the message.

It can be thrilling to see a great documentary on a subject you know nothing about. But there’s a special, rich, satisfying pleasure that comes of seeing a doc about someone you feel you know almost too well, and by the end the film has brought you so close to her that in your imagination, she’s been reborn.

Janis: Little Girl Blue, directed by Amy Berg (the documentarian behind West of Memphis and Deliver Us From Evil), is that kind of movie. It’s only 92 minutes long, but it draws the audience into a magisterial biography; it’s electric, intimate and heartbreaking. The film suggests that there was a sadness – a self-hatred – that shadowed Janis Joplin. At the same time she could be intensely joyful and one of the film’s revelations is that Janis the dissolute hippie, wrapping herself in feather boas and talking in ’60s jive, was an artificial creation: a cover-up for the sophisticated, quietly articulate woman she really was. Maybe that’s why she got along so famously with Dick Cavett, the talk-show host who turned Janis’ guest appearances into unlikely flirt-a-thons. Berg interviews Cavett, who is hilariously coy about whether he and Joplin ever slept together, but it’s clear that these two had more in common than the culture could see or handle.

In an age when the lives of pop stars are so relentlessly on display, documentary filmmakers are devising new ways to dive deep into the kind of archival material that would normally fuel an exhaustive written biography. The recent Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck was a head-spinning immersion in Cobain’s notebooks, youthful drawings, and home videos, and Amy, this year’s hit Amy Winehouse doc, used a treasure trove of private video footage to transcend the beehive and cat’s-eye mascara, making it feel, amazingly, like you’d never seen (or heard) Amy Winehouse before. In Little Girl Blue, Berg brings off something comparable: she employs a vast array of early photographs, and also entries from Joplin’s diary (read by the musician Cat Power), to create an intimate portrait of Janis the unruly free spirit. Growing up in a parochial Texas town in the 1950s, the teenage Joplin was ridiculed for her looks, and there was nothing romantic about her ‘outcast’ status. It scarred her for life. There’s an astounding clip in which she goes back, as a rock star, to her high school reunion, and when talking to a reporter she still can’t get past the pain.

Moving to San Francisco, Janis joined the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and her coming-out party was the Monterey Pop Festival. That’s where a large audience first experienced the high drama of her writhing, screaming majesty on stage. Little Girl Blue is a testament to the primal feminine power that she brought into the world through rock ‘n roll. And part of the film’s fascination is the way her concert performances seem less freaky now, and much more controlled and expressive.

We see Janis the perfectionist in the recording studio, arguing with her bandmates about how to give lyrical shape to a song like Summertime, and the interviews Berg conducts with the members of Big Brother (including Sam Andrew, the one Janis was closest to, who died earlier this year) are moving testaments to the hidden work and turmoil that went into creating the ’60s. When Joplin quit the band, in 1968, it was the right moment for her to leave and evolve, yet it left her unmoored. Only in 1970, making Pearl as a solo artist and working hard to give up heroin, did she find herself. Little Girl Blue suggests that if Joplin had lived, her music would have continued to thrive. I think that’s true, but it’s part of the melancholy mythology of Janis Joplin that her career, cut so tragically short, feels staggeringly complete, even though the reality is that she was just getting started.