Janis: Little Girl Blue
Incomparable wailer Janis Joplin is fondly remembered in Amy J Berg’s documentary
The first of the great rock chicks, unforgettable Janis Joplin, is celebrated and mourned in award-winning documentarian Amy J Berg’s straightforward chronicle of her life, longings and lung power (produced, incidentally, by foremost contemporary documentary maker Alex Gibney).
Berg weaves together a wealth of performance footage with interviews Joplin did in her brief but remarkable career and stories from those who knew her best. Siblings, school-friends, band-mates, rock star contemporaries and a string of lovers all speak of Janis with insight, affection, humour and regret, while her frequent letters home to her parents in Port Arthur, Texas reveal a nice, kindhearted, misfit gal who never got over the bullying and contempt she suffered for her outspoken ideas and her looks. (While at university, fraternity boys voted Janis ‘Ugliest Man on Campus’, just one of the crushing heartaches behind her ambition to become somebody, along with her fatal taste for alcohol and heroin-fuelled oblivion.)
The discovery that she could sing gave her something to offer. And, man, could she sing. From folk and country music clubs in Austin to San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, the raw, unpolished, emotionally unguarded Janis – ‘funny, unassuming…the absolute child-woman ideal of the Haight-Ashbury,’ as one of The Grateful Dead puts it – blossomed into the queen of rock, her electrifying, blueswailing presence at 1967’s landmark Monterey Pop Festival propelling her to stardom. Only three years later she was dead, at just 27. Her influence and legacy are apparent, as is the tragically time-honoured life lesson that stardom is no cure for loneliness and unhappiness.
Fierce, classic performances include ‘Tell Mama’, ‘Women Is Losers’, ‘Down On Me’, ‘Piece Of My Heart’, her biggest hit ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, the vintage Rodgers and Hart song that gives the film its title, ‘Little Girl Blue’, and the absolutely possessed ‘Work Me, Lord’ that she delivered, while completely off her face, at Woodstock.
It has to be said that coming so soon after Asif Kapadia’s acclaimed Amy, which has set a high bar for musical bio docs, Berg’s film feels more ordinary and by-the-numbers. But baby boomers will shed a tear for this little girl lost and thrill to her rare musical power, while whippersnappers who know naught of Janis should check her out.
Selected release from Fri 5 Feb.