Title: Janis:Little Girl Blue
Director: Amy J Berg
Major Players: Janis Joplin, Laura Joplin, Michael Joplin, Kris Kristofferson
Out Of Five: Four
Janis Joplin was just 27 when she died in 1970, sixteen days after Jimi Hendrix, who was the same age. Jim Morrison followed in 1971, although it wasn’t until the death of Kurt Cobain over 20 years later that the idea of the 27 Club was born. Today, it’s onlly five years since the death of Amy Winehouse, again 27. She was immortalised in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar and BAFTA winning documentary, Amy. And now Joplin, one of her inspirations, receives similar treatment in Janis: Little Girl Blue, which is released on Monday on both DVD and online.
Hearing that raw voice, which sounded like she gargled with razor blades, is a sharp reminder of her extraordinary talent. You can’t help but wonder what she could have achieved had she lived longer – it would have been her 73rd birthday this year – but thankfully her distinctive style and sound has lived on, not just in her records, but the copious footage which director Amy J Berg makes good use of, the photographs, Janis’s own letters to her parents and the memories of the people around her.
And it’s those memories in particular that help paint a remarkably frank picture of a girl who grew up feeling that she didn’t fit in and who compensated for it by being, as one of her school friends describes her, “one of the boys”, loving to “rock the boat”. Her rebellious surface disguised sensitivity and hurt: as a teenager, she’d supported the civil rights movement and, as the KKK had an active chapter on her home town of Port Arthur, she was taunted and bullied. At university, she was voted the Ugliest Boy On Campus, an annual poll run by some frat boys. They didn’t know her, she didn’t know them. But it still hurt. Deeply. The tough exterior thickened, the hurt was buried deeper, but it never went away.
Her letters home, which are quoted frequently in the film, have an almost constant refrain, one of apologising for being a disappointment yet always painting a glowing picture of her life, even if it wasn’t necessarily the truth. There’s only one small glimpse of how her conventional parents reacted, and it’s one from her mother which is typewritten, formal and laced with more than a whiff of resignation. She knew that her daughter would go her own way, whatever her parents said. Whether they were proud of her we can’t tell, although we do know that they attended one of her concerts towards what turned out to be the end of her career.
Janis’s constant need for approval and never-ending search for love and acceptance is underlined by the recurring motif of a train speeding along the tracks. It just keeps going and we never see it stopping anywhere, even though there were times in her life when she did find the closeness that she craved. Chat show host, Dick Cavett, is initially coy about his relationship with her, but the half smile and twinkle in the eye are a giveaway. Others are more open.
The archive is extensive. Footage of concerts, including a sensational performance at The Monterey Pop Festival in 1968, home movies, handwritten letters, photographs, and TV interviews are all used to good effect, documenting her development as a singer, her relationships and her on-off-on battle with drugs. Some of the informal footage is more telling that it might have realised. During her time with Big Brother And The Holding Company (it was only two years, but the film makes it feel a lot longer), she always had second billing. From the footage, it should have been the other way round: she comes across as the leader. And, for most of the film, her speaking voice is noticeably softer than her singing one, until later on when she’s hanging out with her latest band. Now she speaks in much the same way as she sings. The constant cigarette between her fingers has done its work.
While this is very much Joplin’s own story, some inevitable social history creeps in. There’s no internet, no social media, no selfies, but the record of her life is crystal clear. And, unlike today’s music festivals where the crowd either sits on the ground – or mud, depending on where you are – or just stands, at Monterey everybody has a proper seat of their own. How civilized.
Joplin was never among my record collection as a teenager. Her voice simply wasn’t my sort of thing at the time, but tastes change and this compassionate but un-varnished journey through her life has made me think it’s time for another listen. Her music, and the documentary, has definitely struck a chord.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is released on DVD and online on Monday, 9 May and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 12 May.