As a music fan in today’s world, where even the most minute detail of a celebrity’s life is drawn out for the world to see, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when it wasn’t like that. Sure, you’d probably hear something on the radio if someone was arrested or something, but nothing near what it is now (we get it, Lindsay Lohan is making poor life choices). With that said, I went into Janis: Little Girl Blue as a fan of her music, but realizing that I didn’t know all that much about her beyond the primary – Texas girl lands in San Francisco, makes some kickass music, then sadly joined the 27 Club. Fortunately, director Amy Berg (West of Memphis, Deliver Us from Evil) did a magnificent job of elaborating on the story of Janis’ life, and connecting the dots for those of us who didn’t know the full story.
Music documentaries are all essentially the same thing, at least the ones focused on a specific artist: Back story, rise to fame, downfall. There’s really no deviating from this pattern, and Little Girl Blue is by no means a revolution in rock documentary film making. In fact it plays like an eerie prequel to Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Amy Winehouse, but it doesn’t need to be a revolution in film making to be good. The story it tells is compelling enough to stand on its own, and indeed shows the revolution in music that was Janis Joplin. As the end credits roll, Melissa Etheridge proclaims that Janis planted the flag for women in rock and roll, and that’s the revolution. Not just that she did it, but the way in which she did it, with such unabashed sexuality, energy, and reckless abandon. That sort of passion is what sets this apart from a great number of other music docs, there’s not a lot of focus on what made Janis great, she just was.
The film is ultimately an exploration of what Janis saw of herself, as told through archival footage and interviews, and what those around her saw. Like everything, somewhere in the middle is the truth. In an interview, we hear her tell a reporter that, “Success hasn’t yet compromised the position that I took in Texas, to be true to myself, to be the person that was inside of me and not play games. That’s what I’m trying to do most in the whole world, is to not bullshit myself.” Through the entire film, it’s evident that she’s at least trying to do that, though there’s a huge part of that person inside of Janis that was highly focused on pleasing others, and being accepted and loved. It’s understandable, of course, for anyone to feel that way, let alone a woman who was cruelly voted “Ugliest Man” by Texas frat boys. So there’s no delusion in that statement to me, that’s just who Janis was.
One of the things that kept crossing my mind during the film was how Janis’ appreciation of the blues went far beyond simply enjoying the music, and how it really dictated a lot of her life. That fact is actually stated early in the film, but it was a repeated unspoken theme. Without trying to get into some sort of psychoanalysis, there’s a reason it’s called the blues, and not the happys. Her lyrics were so autobiographical that there should be no question at all that there was hurt, so much so that I couldn’t help but scoff at her one time girlfriend Peggy Caserta proclaiming (within 10 minutes of hearing from one of Janis complain in one of her letters that the men in her band always left with women and she left alone) that, “People think that she was depressed. She wasn’t.” Maybe depression is a strong word, but it wasn’t always sunshine and flowers, that’s for sure.
The letters home from Janis (read by musician Cat Power) provide a striking insight into the public and private persona that made up Janis, especially in her early days in San Francisco. There’s no greater example of this than her proclaiming to her parents that she was dating Country Joe McDonald, and that they were “the cutest thing” according to everyone “in the rock scene”, followed immediately by present-day Joe stating that they were “good friends”, but that they were never an item. You can’t really fault a girl living 2,000 miles away from home for trying to convince her parents that everything was great, including sending them clippings and articles, but it paints a picture of the two halves of Janis.
Little Girl Blue is a powerful film, no bones about it. From the highs, like seeing Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas in the crowd at Monterey Pop Festival being visibly blown away by Janis’ performance, to the lows, like Kris Kristofferson saying that he didn’t hear Janis’ incredible cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” until after she passed away or hearing Dick Caveat recall her “Would anyone care?” response to his asking her iff she was still using heroin, it does a fantastic job of telling the Janis Joplin story that I never knew.