Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Janis: Little Girl Blue

It was a terrible one-two punch for rock & roll. Just sixteen days after the death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin also passed away. She was supposed to record the vocals for Nick Gravenites’ “Buried Alive in the Blues” that day. Instead, it was included on her posthumous album as an instrumental track. For her songwriter friend, it was the cause of real heartbreak. It was also a bit of a setback for Joplin herself, even though the album went platinum several times over. Amy J. Berg chronicles the short, troubled life of the blues-rock icon largely through her own words in Janis: Little Girl Blue (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In today’s texting world, it seems rather remarkable how often Joplin wrote letters home to her parents and how forthright she was in her dispatches, considering how drastically her values differed from her those of parents. Her words are often heavy, in multiple ways. For a rebellious, musically inclined young woman like Joplin, Port Arthur, Texas was a good town to be from—far from. For a while, she felt somewhat more comfortable in Austin, but it was only San Francisco that truly welcomed her. However, with that sense of belonging came an introduction to hard drugs.

In fact, her first stint in the City by the Bay did not work out so well, but when she returned, she fell in with a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. They started to build quite a reputation, but it was Joplin that the promoters and managers were really interested in.

Berg talks to most of the surviving members of BBHC, as well as their contemporaries like Bob Weir from the Dead, Kris Kristofferson, and Country Joe McDonald (but strangely not Gravenites). Several speculate Joplin might have been happier and healthier if she had not agreed to leave the band and take on the pressure of leading her own band, with good reason. Frankly, if there is one thing Little Girl Blue has plenty of, its regret.

Regardless, the film works best when addressing Joplin’s music. Rather than present her as an ecstatic blues shouter, Berg’s experts explain how she was learning to master her voice like an instrument. The sequences involving the great lost love of her life are also quite touching. However, the film gets downright yucky when it suggests she had a sexual relationship with Dick Cavett, whose coyness is truly nauseating. It makes you wish Joplin would rise from the dead just to say it isn’t so.

Berg is an accomplished documentarian, but it still must have been intimidating to interview DA Pennebaker. Yet, he is a big part of the story (having made Monterey Pop), so Berg duly gets the necessary first-hand accounts from the doc trailblazer. All things considered, J:LGB is a highly watchable survey of Joplin’s life and legacy, but as an American Masters production, it is sure to turn up on PBS soon, so causal fans should be able to wait it out. Recommended in theaters for hardcore Joplin fans, Janis: Little Girl Blue opens this Friday (11/27) in New York, at the IFC Center.