Hollywood has long struggled to launch a definitive biopic dedicated to iconic singer-songwriter Janis Joplin, with various incarnations cycling through a number of statues over the years (at last count, Jean-Marc Vallee’s Amy Adams-starring feature had been delayed by a lawsuit leveled by the film’s producers against producer-writer Ron Terry, simply another road block on an exceedingly bumpy path to getting this story to the big screen), and Amy Berg’s documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue” seeks to speak to the cinematic value of Joplin’s life in a tangible way. Despite Berg’s proven ability to dig deeply into intriguing stories — often aided by enviable access, of which “Janis: Little Girl Blue” has plenty — her latest doc lacks the piercing insight Berg is typically able to convey in her features, and the result is a mostly surface-level feature that lacks the spark of its subject.
Told mostly in a linear manner, “Janis: Little Girl Blue” picks up with Joplin’s early years in tiny Port Author, Texas, examining how Joplin’s early life, including a long-term brush with bullying, inspired her to think and act differently. The film eventually gets to Joplin’s seminal experiences in San Francisco and her early fits of fame (fans of Big Brother and the Holding Company will be pleased to see how much attention her first big band gets), before dedicating most of its final act to Joplin’s heyday in the late 60s and very early 70s (Joplin passed away in October of 1970, an event effectively mentioned abruptly, mirroring the shock of her actual passing).
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Clocking in at under two hours, the film is tasked with cramming an entire life into the minimum of time, and it often comes up short when it comes to canny explorations and richer examinations of both Joplin’s individual life and her greater legacy.
Berg has crafted her film from a wide range of archival items, including Joplin-penned letters to her family (which are powerfully and inventively read by Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, acting as Joplin), news items, interviews, concert footage and photographs. That’s all interspersed with various talking head interviews (including both of Joplin’s siblings and a host of musical friends), a surprisingly standard assemblage for a film about such an offbeat and original character. Stylistically, Marshall’s voiceover work as Joplin is the highlight of the film, and that Berg didn’t employ other creative flourishes like it is disappointing. The insights of the film are mostly lacking — a close friend remarks at one point that “she definitely felt the blues,” and that’s about as profound as it gets — and Joplin’s struggles with drugs and alcohol are mentioned without much particular perspicacity.
There’s also a loose sense of time passing, and the film neglects to include small, but essential details (Joplin’s time in Austin is seemingly explained away as a last-minute visit to the hip Texas town, though she actually moved there to attend college). Still, Berg knows what events deserve the most attention, and plenty of time is spent rustling through Joplin’s early blues style, her failed relationships and her show-stopping performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Berg has at least picked one hell of a subject for herself, and Joplin is consistently engaging. The performance footage on display here is electric, and the full range of Joplin’s talent is best illuminated by way of watching her actually work her charms on stage.
“Janis: Little Girl Blue” is hardly the year’s only necessary documentary about a complicated songstress, and it’s not just the similarities between Joplin’s life and that of Amy Winehouse’s that engender a comparison between Berg’s film and Asif Kapadia’s startling “Amy.” Where Berg struggles to find deeper meaning in her feature, Kapadia’s doc presents a fully realized — and very emotionally engaging — picture of Winehouse, one that exemplifies what is possible when making this type of documentary.
Kapadia’s film is genuinely enlightening to its audience, both emotionally and intellectually, while “Janis” stays mostly murky and uncomfortably surface level. There’s more to explore here, surely, but little of it is present in Berg’s final cut. Long-time fans of Joplin’s music will likely not find much new material to relish in “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” and if the film earns any new acolytes for the songstress, it will be the result of Joplin’s own charisma, not of the presentation of the film built so shakily around her.
“Janis: Little Girl Blue” screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.