REVIEW: Janis: Little Girl Blue
Janis Joplin, Dick Cavett, Kris Kristofferson
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“For fans and the curious alike, this is a must.”
If nothing else, Janis: Little Girl Blue is a useful lesson in how much one person can pack into just four years. that’s how long Janis Joplin’s professional career lasted, spanning four studio albums (two with Big Brother and the Holding Company, two under her own name) before she died of a heroin overdoes in 1970 at the age of 27. It’s also a cautionary tale; not every incident Joplin packed into her short life was a positive one.
Thus Amy J. Berg’s (Deliver us from Evil, West of Memphis) exhaustive documentary is both a celebration and a dirge, and it’s interesting to speculate how Joplin – bisexual, best by substance issues, desperate for love and acceptance – might have fared if she’d been born into today’s more accepting world, and not Texas in the mid-1940s. Then again, with no Janis to light the fire, where would many female performers be? Joplin was the Opener of the Way, if not the first female rocker than certainly the first to make an indelible mark on the culture, and Berg takes pains to illustrate what an iconoclastic trailblazer she was.
Narrated by Chan “Cat Power” Marshall, who brings to life a lot of Joplin;s personal correspondence, the film brings together the usual mix of interviews with contemporaries (octogenarian light entertainer Dick Cavett has some surprising revelations to share) and archival footage of live gigs and interviews. Pleasingly, the film eschews spinning its wheels trying to explain the ’60s to a younger audience, trusting that the viewer is au fait with the cultural and historical context of the events.
While Berg never shies away from the more lascivious elements of Joplin’s persona – we spend a fair amount of time with drugged-up Janis, clutching her bottle of Southern Comfort, as she lurches from failed relationship to failed relationship – the mosaic portrait that emerges is one of a hugely talented, intelligent and ambitious performer who was perhaps even too outre for the permissive late ’60s milieu she emerged from. Like her heir apparent – culturally if not musically – Amy Winehouse, Joplin is often viewed as a sad and tragic figure, denied the “dying god” status of a Morrison, a Hendrix, or even a Cobain. Little Girl Blue seeks to correct that, astutely linking the art with the pain, the music with the chaos; the need to be loved that drove Joplin’s excesses was the same thing that spurred her artistic achievements, and while the film never straight-up states that a happy Joplin might never have stepped outside of the parameters set by her conservative upbringing, the implication is there.
Of course, Joplin’s life has been set down for the record on film before, most notably in 1974’s Janis by Canadian documentarian, Howard Alk. However, Berg’s deft handling of familiar material, coupled with some truly insightful interviews with period veterans, makes Janis: Little Girl Blue the definitive account. For fans and the curious alike, this is a must.