Review: In 'Janis: Little Girl Blue,' Exploring Joplin's Demons

30 Nov Review: In 'Janis: Little Girl Blue,' Exploring Joplin's Demons

New York Times

In Amy Berg’s documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” the sound that erupts from Janis Joplin singing the ’60s R&B classic “Cry Baby” comes as close as I’ve heard to a grown-up singer capturing a baby’s primal squall. Heard today, this raw, insistent scream, from Joplin’s posthumously released 1971 album, “Pearl,” is as disturbing and powerful as ever.

But Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose the previous year at 27, wasn’t an infant. She had a woman’s voice. More than any rock star of her generation she fearlessly vented the emotions of her needy inner girl-child. The film sustains a double vision of both the child and the hard-living folk-blues mama Joplin became.

Although Ms. Berg’s enthralling film tells a story somewhat similar to “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary portrait of Amy Winehouse (who also died at 27), the demons that devoured Winehouse came from outside as much from within. Not so with Joplin.

Fame and celebrity in the 21st century are far more toxic than in the early 1970s. Some of the most memorable images in “Amy” show Winehouse cringing on the street as she is virtually eaten alive by flashbulbs, and at such moments, it feels like a true-life horror movie. The demons in “Little Girl Blue” come from inside. You can’t lay the blame for Joplin’s death on the paparazzi or hangers-on and enablers.

The emotional wounds Joplin sustained are the kind that never completely heal. The worst originated not from her family but from her high school classmates in Port Arthur, Tex. The antithesis of the all-American prom-queen ideal, Joplin suffered merciless verbal abuse and rejection and fought back by donning elaborate hippie regalia and parading as a raucous, bad-girl roustabout. At the University of Texas in Austin, a fraternity campaigned to elect her the “ugliest man on campus.” She put on a brave face, but how does anyone really shake off something like that? Later, Joplin’s most vulnerable moments followed adrenaline-charged concerts when her band members went home with girls, and she found herself revved-up but alone.

In the movie, Joplin’s letters to friends, lovers and her cautiously supportive but disapproving parents are plaintive and direct. Read aloud by the singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, in a gentler voice than Joplin’s scratchy yowl, they reveal a forthright honesty, emotional openness and fierce intelligence. Her younger siblings, Laura and Michael, offer wistful, caring remembrances.

Her romantic relationships with both men and women didn’t end well. Particularly hurtful was her abandonment by a San Francisco drug dealer after he had asked her father’s permission to marry her.

San Francisco in its hippie heyday was her salvation and her destruction. She became the voice of the blues-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company and a sensation at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, singing “Ball and Chain.” The film includes the famous shot of Mama Cass in the audience marveling at Joplin’s talent.

Her stardom was no accident. She was ambitious. Her initial idol was Bob Dylan. But she absorbed the influences of Odetta, Bessie Smith, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Her outspoken advocacy of black civil rights didn’t sit well in Port Arthur, where virulent racism was rampant.

Once Joplin left Big Brother she found it difficult to lead her own band. But with the support of Paul Rothchild, who produced “Pearl,” she grew as an artist. That album, which yielded her biggest hit, “Me and Bobby McGee,” suggested her potential to become a rock equivalent of Billie Holiday.

The end came just when she had begun to exert more self-control and her use of heroin had diminished. In a moment of weakness, those beady-eyed demons caught up with her.

“Janis: Little Girl Blue” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.