Port Arthur lies on the southeastern end of Texas, ninety minutes from Houston, and two hours from Lafayette, Louisiana. It’s a tiny place, home to under 60,000 residents, and one can only imagine it’s the kind of town where if you grow up with any kind of worldly aspirations, you start plotting your escape fast. Port Arthur marks the unlikely and humble beginnings of rock ‘n roll legend Janis Joplin, whose boisterous spirit and refusal to fill pre-conceived social, gender, or sexual roles all but assured the town could never contain her. She “couldn’t figure out how to make herself like everyone else,” her sister reflects in Amy Berg’s sturdy documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue.” Janis was an outcast, but she soon found a city full of them that she would call home.
San Francisco was the place to be in the ‘60s and it’s where Joplin fled from the rigid conformity and conservatism of her home and discovered, well, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. It’s where she cut her musical chops, battled drug addiction, fell in with The Grateful Dead and other notable scenesters, and of course, joined Big Brother And The Holding Company which would provide a showcase for her muscular singing talent that was only beginning to blossom. At a glance it’s easy to romanticize the era, and see Joplin as something of a caricature of the time, a free-spirited, bisexual artist, who happened to be in the right groovy place at the right groovy time. And to some degree, music history hasn’t done a great job of adding more dimension to what we know about Joplin. That’s where Berg’s film comes in, and while aesthetically it doesn’t do much to break the form, it more than succeeds in presenting Joplin as a flawed, insecure, deeply brilliant woman who, unfortunately, couldn’t shake her demons.
However, perhaps the greatest achievement of Berg’s documentary is in providing a new appreciation for Joplin as a tremendously skilled vocalist, and this cannot be overstated. While my classic rock phase made plenty of room for the expected gods — Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, etcetera — for whatever reason, Joplin skirted around my radar. So it only made my jaw drop even further through the many uncut scenes of archival footage, smartly presented by Berg, to witness Joplin’s powerful, showstopping, makes-your-hair-stand-on-end voice, shown unadorned, raw, and real. Her performance of “Summertime” will make you involuntarily gasp, and Joplin’s breakthrough performance at Monterey Pop is simply a work of art. The cut to the reaction of Mama Cass in the audience (thank D.A. Pennebaker for noticing and capturing the moment) says it all — Joplin was otherworldly, and while Berg doesn’t veer toward hagiography, ‘Little Girl Blue’ is more than just a tribute.
The documentary has a smattering of talking heads, including relatives, friends, musicians, boyfriends, and former collaborators, but perhaps the most interesting insight comes from Dick Cavett, whom you wish was in more of the film. Joplin made a handful of memorable appearances on his program, and the talk show host’s surprising and coy revelation about his interaction with the singer is too good to spoil here, but there were more than a few shocked exclamations at my press screening.
Elsewhere, Berg does a mostly excellent job of capturing the era and times in which Joplin lived, and more critically, how she clashed against them. From criticism from feminists, barbs from small town hicks (she was cruelly voted Ugliest Man On Campus when she attended university in Beaumont), to the fickle minded media, who called for her to leave Big Brother And The Holding Company as they ascended up the ladder of success, only to then ask if she made a mistake when she went solo. At times, Joplin was in a consistently no-win situation with the public, though privately she strived to get clean, find love, and grow her musical gift. The lesson producer Paul A. Rothchild imparted on Joplin, that beneath her bellow was a voice with range, was a revelation to the singer, and is an indication that had she lived, her career would’ve gone to places we can only dream of.
And that’s what makes her death at the age of twenty-seven all the more tragic, beyond being accidental, and beyond her being heartbreakingly alone when she passed away in a motel room. Berg’s documentary may not be groundbreaking, but the simplicity and directness of approach creates a new consideration not just for Joplin’s breadth of artistry, but arguably for her impact on generations that followed. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions on the point, as ‘Little Girl Blue’ takes for granted the legacy of its subject, leaving you to wish for some contemporary artists to speak of her influence. However, given everything that’s learned and witnessed throughout the picture, there is little to debate about Joplin’s badass, beautiful, and melancholy place in rock ‘n roll history. [B]