There’s no doubt in the musical community that Janis Joplin’s trailblazing career opened the door for the Amy Winehouses and Melissa Etheridges of the world. So it’s also understandable that crafting a proper biopic of the legendary singer is a practically insurmountable feat – both in finding the proper actress to portray her and in telling her complete story within the time constraints of a film.
While the quest to cobble together a scripted offering remains an ongoing one, Amy J. Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, comes just in time for the 45th anniversary of the 27-year-old’s untimely death.
Having screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the film will be released in select theaters on November 27, and make its television debut on PBS’s American Masters in 2016. Clocking in at roughly two hours, it boasts an impressive array of archival footage and intimate interviews with the singer’s siblings, former band mates, lovers and musical icons. The real narrative thread, however, comes from Joplin herself, via snippets of letters she wrote to family and friends.
Read aloud by Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, and her silky smooth, southern voice, these insights into Joplin’s life weave together a tale of a performer who was boisterous, loud and fun-loving in her public life, but shy and unsure of herself in private. That juxtaposition continues as the audience is treated to photograph after photograph of Joplin kicking back with the guys, with voiceovers that reveal a woman who was looking for meaningful and lasting love.
As such, the film traces Joplin’s development through her relationships, from the drug dealer she nearly married before reaching fame to her failed fling with David George Niehaus, a free-spirited man she met while traveling in Brazil. With each high and low the narrative teeters from extreme joy to absolute heartbreak, all while following the effects those moments had on Joplin's overall career.
Joplin’s many blues influences and her start with Big Brother & the Holding Company are explored in depth, although music lovers may be disappointed at the lack of dissection surrounding the music itself and the far-reaching impact Joplin’s time on stage had in the community. Plenty of the film focuses on her early career and her ascent to stardom, with enough flashy images, feathers and beads to go around. Berg also offers additional insight into Joplin’s career and growth in the period after she broke away from the band, focusing on her struggles to lead a band on her own and eventually finding a way to extend her career beyond what even she believed was possible.
Largely, though, this is a story that follows Joplin’s need to be loved – by the audience, by her band mates, by the press and by other human beings. At one point she refers to being on stage akin to making love to the audience, but then when the show was over, there was no one left standing with her.
It was during those dark times that her drug use became most prevalent, especially as Joplin – a woman whose own “unconventional” looks were far from the Barbie mould – watched her male cohorts leave each night with models as she went home alone. Some of those darker periods are touched upon in the film, including the famed Woodstock performance in which Joplin could barely make it on stage.
As for Joplin’s actual death, it’s a moment the audience inevitably knows is coming but it still feels shocking when it does. It’s a brief, delicately handled scene that opts to let her legacy speak for itself, rather than weigh in on the awful thing that just happened.
That subtleness is what makes the film so effective by its closing moments, when the likes of Juliette Lewis, Pink and Etheridge weigh in on Joplin and what she did for the industry. As one of the few women of her kind during those years, it was important for her to have a voice, as it continues to be here while other people weigh in on what she brought to this world, and how changed it was in her mind when she ultimately left it.
Janis: Little Girl Blue premieres in select cities on November 27 and expands to wider audiences in December.