“Don’t you know, honey,
Ain’t nobody ever gonna love you
The way I try to do?
Who’ll take all your pain,
Honey, your heartache, too?”
— Janis Joplin, “Cry Baby”
“After you reach a certain level of talent,” Janis Joplin wrote her family in 1970, “and quite a few have that talent, the key factor is ambition or, as I see it, how much you really need.” As Cat Power reads this letter at the start of the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, you see the singer smiling, posing with a cigarette and a bottle of Southern Comfort. “You need to be loved, you need to be proud of yourself,” the letter goes on, “I guess that’s what ambition is. Maybe it’s for love.”
Amy Berg’s film begins with Joplin’s end. Even as she tells her family that she’s proud to have made it to age 27, she’ll be dead of a heroin overdose in October of this very year. Everyone knows that story, but still, the movie creates a delicate tension in its telling, inviting you to anticipate and also reconsider what you know. On the one hand, you’re reminded of the prodigious talent Janis possessed, the rules she broke and the patterns she repeated, the life she shared and the pain she suffered. On the other hand, you understand that none of the stories here can do her justice.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is like other documentaries about rock stars lost or brilliant artists remembered, setting an inevitable conclusion against buoyant hopes. The “little girl blue” aspect is as reductive as you might think. At the same time, it can’t be quite like other documentaries, because its subject is Janis Joplin, so ferocious, so profound, so electrifying.
It’s easy to think of Joplin as a singular brilliance, damaged and influential. It’s tempting to set her into shifting contexts — say, alongside other artists of her era, like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, or next to those inspired by her, from Stevie Nicks and Joss Stone to Pink and Amy Winehouse. You can make a case, too, that she’s representative, both an emblem of her moment and of her ambitions. Maybe of her need for love.
Berg’s film takes at least two tracks through this labyrinth of possibilities, one a mostly straightforward biography that features interviews with all kinds of people, from her sister Laura and her high school boyfriends, to her bandmates and friends. They do what you do, from what seems a closer vantage point, having interacted with her at some time: they guess at the demons driving her and the magic buoying her, they try to make a logic out of a life that is, in so many respects and like most lives, a series of accidents.
The other track is a function of another kind of accident, the footage of Joplin available, astounding performances on stage, intriguing rehearsals, interviews for which she devised a series of selves, different at different stages of her career. These might be revealing but they also aren’t, or can’t be, as they are performances, bits of the transported Joplin, thrilling and enduring and self-aware.
These scenes make this movie go. Whether it’s a clip from DA Pennabaker’s 1967 film Monterey Pop or footage of Joplin in Frankfurt, singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company or the Kozmic Blues Band, breaking hearts with “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Cry Baby”, and “Piece of My Heart”, the stage shows remain incredible. If the movie was only made of those kinds of scenes, it might tell another sort of story, not trying so hard to make sense. But it’s a talking heads movie too, observations and memories, guesses and projections. These can be soothing, as an ordering process, but they’re flattening too, in an effort to bring this star into a manageable orbit.
“She started dressing differently, loafers without socks and tight skirts,” Laura recalls of Joplin back in high school in Port Arthur, Texas. She rebelled against racism and dress codes, her friends remember. But that insurgence could only expose more limits. “Where does she go?” asks Laura, “What does she do?” She left, of course, and went on to sing, to express anger and desire, hers and, in assorted views, that of a generation, or a population, or a legacy.
Guitarist Sam Andrew (who worked with in Big Brother and the Kozmic Blues Band), says, “I love Jan, I loved her all the way through. She had this attitude that I like. It wasn’t belligerent, but it was non-compromising.” This in the midst of the compromises necessary to get through each day on the road, performing for a company, delivering to fans and other emotional shareholders.
During a phone interview, Joplin’s girlfriend, Peggy Caserta explains what others call “the drug problem”. “People think that she was depressed. She wasn’t. It was all fun. We shot heroin for fun, and it took the edge off. We were in the middle of one of the most social phenomenons in history.”
Sam Andrew, who used with Joplin and other members of the Kozmic Blues Band, remembers it differently, as being “out of control” (this, he explains, was after Big Brother, when Peter Albin played a kind of parental role, insisting they not shoot heroin or other drugs backstage). The film shows her on stage high too, fulfilling contracts when she might have been better served by almost any other activity or environment.
The stages shows are bracing and sometimes scary. Juliette Lewis describes Joplin on stage this way: “You might as well be slashing yourself on stage and opening your skin.” In interviews, Joplin insists this is what she most wants to do in the world. She tells Dick Cavett that she loves being on stage. “You have little games that you play with yourself to turn yourself on, you can usually get yourself going,” she says, when he presses her about the stress of it.
Or again, after Big Brother and as Kozmic Blues was falling apart, she insists to an interviewer in a suit, “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.”
Whatever she tells herself, in public, in the moments assembled here, she offers a self who is framed by expectations, resistant and also eager to please. However she conceived herself at any given moment, the movie offers everyone else’s stories. “She was in touch with her emotions and with herself more than anyone I knew,” says David Niehas, termed here a “former boyfriend”, who met her late in her life, explored Rio with her, and hoped she might give up heroin.
“She was in touch.” As accurate as it may be, his phrasing is familiar too, a metaphor for what can’t quite be described. Niehas ends with a summation, remembering his reaction to news of her death: “That’s the price you pay for doing that kind of art on that level.” Like so much else in the movie, it’s too true and wholly fiction, a story someone needs to tell.