And “Janis: Little Girl Blue” is another absorbing, saddening story of a woman with an extraordinary talent, given a raw deal by many around her and ultimately brought down by addiction.
Kapadia of course was dealing with a woman who still exists in recent memory; whether people are fans of her work or not, Winehouse was inescapable in the media (much to her detriment). In contrast, Berg brings to life a woman who died 45 years ago, without question a music icon, but one who this film will surely introduce to many people. And even if you are familiar with Joplin, when she bursts onto the screen, on stage and belting out “Tell Mama,” all you can think is “Wow.”
Berg has assembled an impressive amount of material, including archive film of concerts and studio recording sessions, photographs, television interviews and new interviews with family, band members and others. But the icing on the cake is provided by Joplin’s letters to her parents, read in the film by another Southern singer, Cat Power, and giving the film its emotional thread and revelation.
A key to Joplin’s tragedy is the first letter that opens the film, but written towards the end of her life. Reflecting on her success, she suggests that “once you have a certain amount of talent, the deciding factor is ambition.” Then she qualifies ambition, as “how much you need to be loved.”
In contrast to the stage and public persona at the height of her fame – sassy, sexy, confident – Joplin spent much of her life lonely and desperate for acceptance. The girl from Port Arthur always had a bum deal in Texas. At school she was persecuted both for her looks and her independent thinking, particularly for her views against segregation; at university she was voted “ugliest man on campus.” Joplin’s brother recounts that Joplin “demanded to be different.” One wonders which came first, the alienation or the rebellion.
Her parents didn’t understand her. One of her first lovers was a meth dealer who proposed marriage, then disappeared. Joplin needed a break, and specifically a place where she could truly be herself, and she found it in music. While discovering the blues was an epiphany, getting the chance to front a rock band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, proved to be the making of her.
Berg provides numerous opportunities to delight in Joplin in action, whether in performance, or discussing music and recording choices with the band and joking with them during press interviews, or the obvious rapport with Dick Cavett on TV. The long section covering her breakthrough at the Monterey Pop music festival in 1967 is the cherry on the cake, but all her performances reveal her complete vocal and emotional immersion in the moment, and an electric rapport with the audience.
What’s striking about her as a person, beyond the energy, humor and individualism, is the glaring sincerity, not just in the autobiographical lyrics, but seemingly all aspects of her life. The television report covering her school reunion – the scene of so many crimes against her – is a case in point. Rather than returning triumphantly, rubbing their noses in her fame, she is still so affected by the past that she can’t tell reporters a single thing about her time there; rather than criticize the school, and unable to be platitudinous, she says nothing.
For a time, being part of a band gave her the acceptance she craved. But she was still a rare woman in a man’s world, so she wasn’t ever able to be fully “one of the boys,” and there was as much loneliness on the road as at school. So the emotional crutches of drink and drugs were never far away. Unlike Winehouse, Joplin kept her addictions largely away from the spotlight.
Nevertheless, Berg treads too lightly around the issue (inexplicably, given the period she’s covering) to the point that singer’s death – of a heroine overdose in 1970 – is remarkably abrupt.
In truth, “Janis” doesn’t excite as a piece of filmmaking in the same way as “Amy.” Kapadia’s construction of narrative from archive material has a thrilling immediacy that this doesn’t quite match. An integral part of the Brit’s approach, the omission of the on-camera interviewee, helps create the energy of his films; Berg’s more traditional
use of such material here is a reminder that with every sudden, static shot of a person who is not the subject of the film, however revealing or touching they may be, a degree of immersion in that subject is lost.
Yet that’s a small objection to an essential film, which reminds us of the joy and pathos of one of the most gloriously vital careers of the Sixties.