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When Janis Joplin was a teenager, she got kicked out of choir. Neither pretty nor popular, this black sheep chose to cause trouble for the herd instead of trying to run with it. Regardless, as a friend says in Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue, Joplin’s status as an outcast during that time caused her “profound hurt.” Even after she moved out of her Texas hometown to Austin and then San Francisco to become a singer, Joplin wasn’t at peace: “Jesus fucking Christ, I want to be happy so fucking bad,” she wrote to her then-boyfriend when she returned home to detox from meth, heroin, alcohol, and whatever else she experimented with on the West Coast.
Joplin found her happiness once her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, started gaining recognition. She’d also found her style after watching Otis Redding perform, an electrifying clip of which is included in this film, seamlessly blended in with the copious footage of Joplin commanding the stage, her wails apparent attempts to exorcise her demons.
Little Girl Blue is a departure for Berg, the Prophet’s Prey and West of Memphis director who thus far has focused on criminal injustice and buried scandals. Though Joplin’s death at age 27 from a heroin overdose certainly counted as a sad scandal in 1970, it’s now very old news—particularly when held up to Amy, the similarly arced documentary about Amy Winehouse that’s one of the year’s best.
Berg follows the hard-to-escape Behind the Music formula, with one distinctive exception: The film includes letters that Joplin wrote to her family over the years, which are read by an off-screen Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power. Her excitement in most of these missives is endearing; you can imagine her FDR-era parents not quite knowing what to make of news such as record label deals and band relations. But proclamations such as “I’m so happy” likely rang clear in the midst of her music-industry foreign language.
In addition to footage of performances, studio sessions, and candid moments, Joplin is shown giving interviews (many with Dick Cavett, who hints that they may have been lovers). And in contrast to her screaming-siren onstage personality, Joplin is rather polite, gentle-voiced, and—dare I say—ladylike. It was also only toward the end of her brief career that she gained confidence and accepted that perhaps she was a worthy peer to the musical elite. When Joplin started out, she’d admit to things she didn’t yet know (“Maybe if I keep singing…?”) and kept her idols above her (when a reporter mentions that she shares a manager with Bob Dylan, Joplin says, “Yeah. He’s better.”)
Despite Berg’s odd choice to use a railroad-tracks motif throughout the film—way too often—Little Girl Blue is largely a well-crafted, privileged peek into the personal life and rise of a powerhouse singer gone too soon. (Though one detail, Joplin’s bisexuality, is mentioned only in passing, in favor of highlighting her heterosexual dalliances.)
Viewers of a certain age will want to break out their vinyl after the film breaks their hearts: Cavett reveals one conversation he had with Joplin during which he asked if she were using again. Her answer: “Who would care?” Joplin’s periods of happiness were, evidently, fleeting. As one of her girlfriends, Jae Whitaker, says early on in the doc: “She definitely felt the blues.”
Janis: Little Girl Blue opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.