Janis: Little Girl Blue is a documentary directed by Amy Berg about Janis Joplin. It’s a story with which you’re already familiar, and a subject that might too easily appeal to those harbouring a lurid interest in drug-fuelled sexual excesses or a tie-dyed nostalgia for the sixties. Berg, though, avoids sensationalism or pathos (except perhaps in the title), and her film features few of those music biz talking heads, familiar from Friday evening BBC 4 music documentaries, blathering on about how so-and-so was such a wonderful person who single-handedly changed the course of modern music.
Instead, it’s Janis’s sister who does most of the talking, and the narrative is helped along by an array of photographs from the family album, and entries from Joplin’s letters to her family, written right up until just before her death, and read by the similarly-troubled Cat Power. The thrust of Berg’s film is to create a portrait of a woman who was challengingly inconsistent, never able to reconcile an unruly free spirit with her inner hurt and insecurity: the wounded ‘little girl blue’ of the film’s title.
Though it wouldn’t be right to say that Berg portrays Joplin as a victim, she does place a great deal of emphasis on the emotional wounds she sustained during her childhood and teenage years – wounds inflicted by her high school classmates in Port Arthur, Texas, and later by fellow-students at the University of Texas in Austin.
This part of her story is familiar in outline, but it gains extra resonance from the testimony of Joplin’s sister Laura, and a remarkable piece of footage Berg has found of Janis being interviewed in 1970, when she returned to Port Arthur for her ten-year high-school reunion. Who knows why she went back for the reunion: these were people who had once subjected her to merciless verbal abuse, calling her a pig and a whore, scorning and isolating her. Maybe she was after revenge, acknowledgement of her success, perhaps even an apology or two.
She arrived at the reunion in full Janis flourish – purple and pink feather boa, open-toed silver slippers and fluorescent orange paint on her toenails, those oversized sunglasses, wrists and forearms heavy with bangles and charms. In the newsreel footage we glimpse her peers gawking at her and greedily snatching autographs, while making snarky comments behind her back. Most telling, however, are her nervous, self-deprecating, but defiantly critical responses to local journalists, keen to suggest that bygones can be bygones.The truth was that Janis was the antithesis of the all-American prom-queen ideal. As her sister recalls, she suffered rejection for her acne, fluctuating weight and plain features – but fought back by adopting outlandish dress and a raucous, bad-girl persona. Her outspoken advocacy of black civil rights also didn’t go down well in Port Arthur, where racism was rampant and where a branch of the KKK was still publicly active.
Berg’s film suggests that these early experiences were a crucial factor explaining her insecurity and the trajectory of her short and troubled life. Maybe. There are, however, many who endure ridicule or bullying in school, but who grow into perfectly balanced, if ordinary, adults. Nevertheless, her story provides evidence of the pressure society imposed on women (and arguably still does) to conform to established views about what they should look like and how they should behave.
Things got no better when Janis left to study literature at the University of Texas in Austin, where a fraternity succeeded in getting her elected the ‘ugliest man on campus.’ Outwardly at least, she shrugged off the abuse, her identity shaped by reading Kerouac in the raw honesty of the folk blues of Odetta, Bessie Smith and Leadbelly. It was in Austin that she first found her remarkable voice and Berg has uncovered an exceptional early recording of her singing the version of ‘Careless Love’ that she had heard on record by Odetta.
Put on my wings and then I’ll try the air
Since it looks like everybody in this whole round world,
Is down on me
In 1963 Joplin moved to San Francisco where she found an outlet for her pain and loneliness among the community of hippies and musicians who would embrace and celebrate her talent. Her emotional honesty, on-stage bravado and uninhibited sexual persona hid the hurt and insecurity, Berg suggests. Once on stage, Joplin felt herself swept up in a wave of unconditional love that could never quite be sustained off stage. The film bears this out, capturing Joplin in magnificent frenetic performances, ripping into ‘Cry Baby’ or ‘Summertime’, while off stage we glimpse a more vulnerable figure (though also someone who was gregarious and, most of the time, fun to be around).
In San Francisco’s hippie heyday Joplin became the voice of the blues-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and a sensation at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The film tells how the band almost missed out on appearing in D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal film, Monterey Pop. Like other bands from San Francisco, they refused to sign release papers for the filming. But Pennebaker, blown away by their unfilmed performance, persuaded them to sign and repeat their set for the cameras the following day.
Big Brother and the Holding Company: ‘Ball & Chain’ from Monterey Pop
Big Brother and the Holding Company: ‘Combination of the Two’, outtake from Monterey Pop
Big Brother’s first album was released in August 1967, shortly after that breakthrough appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. The second album, Cheap Thrills, included one of the definitive interpretations of ‘Summertime’, which we see Janis rehearsing with the band in the studio. It is one of her finest achievements.
‘Summertime’ from Cheap Thrills
Berg suggests how ambitious Joplin was, consciously shaping her image, wrapping herself in feather boas and cultivating an impish spontaneity and extravagant emotional openness. The implication being that it was all artificial, designed to mask the thoughtful, quietly articulate woman she really was. She got a lot of stick at the time from the women’s movement, made uncomfortable by her frank sexuality: she admitted she more one of the boys than she was a feminist, though the musicians she most admired tended to be women: Odetta, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and so on. Though, as one witness notes, her characteristic screamed repetitions were stolen from Otis Redding.
The film spends some time exploring Joplin’s break with Big Brother: a symbol of her ambition, and those in the music business who sneered at the amateurism of the other Big Brother musicians and encouraged her to carve out a career as an individual, along the lines of Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday. She left Big Brother for a solo career backed by the Kozmic Blues Band, developing more of an R&B or soul sound, typified by the use of horns and strings, than the blues-rock of many of the San Francisco bands. One example is her rendition of the Rodgers and Hart song ‘Little Girl Blue’.
Janis Joplin performs ‘Little Girl Blue’ on the Tom Jones Show
Berg’s witnesses suggest that she found it difficult to lead her own band, and critics were less than impressed: we catch a glimpse of a Ralph Gleason article for the San Francisco Chronicle in which he wrote that the new band was a ‘drag’, suggesting that she should ‘go right back to being a member of Big Brother…(if they’ll have her).’
In August and September 1970, Joplin and her band rehearsed and recorded a new album in Los Angeles with producer Paul Rothchild, who seems to have helped Janis to modulate her vocal style. Berg’s film portrays this as a much more positive time, during which Janis stayed off heroin for six months. The man she loved, a hippie trail wanderer, had left her because of the heroin. But once she put the drugs behind her, she created the greatest music of her life: songs like ‘Move Over’, written by Joplin and reflecting the way that she felt men treated women in relationships, ‘Cry Baby’, and ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ that would become her biggest hit single.
‘Me and Bobby McGee’: acoustic demo from the Pearl sessions
But as the recording sessions were nearing completion, for reasons we will never know, Janis relapsed and overdosed, probably accidentally, on heroin. It was a lonely death in a motel room, aged just 27. The day after her death, a telegram from her lover on the hippie trail was discovered at the motel desk: he wanted to hook up with her again. But Janis never got the message. The result of the summer’s recording sessions was the posthumously released Pearl which became the biggest-selling album of her career.
A few weeks after her death, on the Dick Cavett TV show, John Lennon opines that the reason for her death lay in a socially dysfunctional society: ‘People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.’ Fair enough. But then, why do some in the same circumstances become addicted to drugs, while others don’t? Perhaps there’s an addictive personality: some in the film speak of Joplin being addicted to the applause and adulation she received in her live shows. And was that related to the rejection and hurt that were inflicted upon her at school and university? All that’s certain is that, tragically, the end came just when witnesses agree that she had begun to exert more self-control and her use of heroin had diminished.
‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose ..’ But there was everything to lose.
Berg managed to track down Janis’s hippie trail lover, and in the film he suggests that Janis could never be oblivious to suffering: that her singing represents an ‘entire honesty.’
At the end of the film, wearing a short dress of scarlet, Janis sashays across the floor out of the door into perpetual darkness.
Janis: Little Girl Blue trailer
- O Janis: excellent essay and book review by Robert Draper, Texas Monthly, October 1992