Art Doc of the Week | Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue
“Our parents had given us permission [to be different], but weren’t aware of what would happen if you did it. Janis was the first one in the family to find out.” –Michael Joplin, Janis Joplin’s brother
Early in the documentary Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, an excerpt of a letter she wrote to her parents is read aloud as photos of her fill the screen. “After you reach a certain level of talent,” she writes, “and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition or, as I see it, how much you really need – need to be loved, need to be proud of yourself. And I guess that’s what ambition is. It’s not all depraved quests for position or money. Maybe it’s for love. Lots of love. Ha!”
The self-deprecating “ha” is a protective measure, a pulling back after too much has been revealed. But as many of the interviews with Joplin’s family, friends, and fellow musicians make clear throughout the film, Joplin’s emotional and psychological wounds were at the core of her creativity and drive. That’s not new news, of course. It’s the basis of much of much Joplin lore. And the tortured artist is both a cliché and an overused template for artists’ persona building. What makes Joplin’s words, and the entire film, so moving is the way director Amy J. Berg both strips away the lore while also finding the considerable truth within it.
Joplin’s story is well known not only to fans of the late singer, but even to non-fans, for being a boilerplate narrative for so many people – artists and regular Joes and Janes alike. An outcast whose physicality was at odds with social norms of desirability, young Joplin was taunted for her looks, but was also horribly bullied (before the word had the applications and currency it now does) for her outlandish beliefs (i.e. black people deserved equal rights and treatment under the law). Those beliefs put her at odds with the prevailing notions (as espoused by a vibrant local chapter of the KKK) of her Texas hometown of Port Arthur. And in that nightmarish way the universe works, where the bullied sometimes become magnets for bullies well beyond childhood, Joplin’s years at college were no less horrific for her. A friend from that time recalls how devastated she was at being voted the ugliest man at her college, with her picture splashed across the front of the school paper.
Berg doesn’t simply map out the defining and quotidian horrors of Joplin’s life, though. Before the film ends on the wrenching note of Joplin’s fatal heroin overdose, the director documents a complicated and engrossing process of self-discovery and self-worth, of self-creation, that is inspiring for being unsparing about what it costs to transcend perceptions of others and of yourself. While it is smartly unsparing in showing the ways Joplin, like many damaged people, compounded her wounds, with her efforts at self-medicating becoming a dangerous crutch, the film is just as frequently thrilling: the inclusion of a cutaway shot from D.A. Pennebaker’s classic 1968 documentary Monterey Pop, in which Mama Cass mouths “Wow” at the end of Joplin’s career-making performance; footage of Joplin in-studio, painstakingly mapping out a session with her producer and band members, demonstrating her not just her knowledge and insights on music, but her commitment to making art; the frankness with which her relationships with women are discussed.
And the interview subjects – former boyfriends and girlfriends; her two siblings; musicians such as Bob Weir, Kris Kristofferson, and assorted former band members – offer memories that are insightful and intimate. (Berg has clearly trimmed away the fat.) Through it all is performance footage that is alternately rousing and heartbreaking, several old interview clips (her chemistry with talk show legend Dick Cavett is off the charts) and countless rare or little-seen photographs that are masterfully utilized. What emerges is a woman who was smart, funny, tortured, sexy, ahead of her time, and – as a figure of both pain and resilience – timeless.
Top Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images