'Janis: Little Girl Blue': Maybe It's for Love

On the one hand, you're reminded of the prodigious talent Janis possessed. On the other, you understand that none of the stories here can do her justice.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Director: Amy Berg
Cast: Peter Albin, Sam Andrew, Karleen Bennett, Dick Cavett, John Byrne Cooke, David Dalton, Cornelius “Snooky” Flowers, Country Joe McDonald, Clive Davis, Melissa Etheridge, David Getz, Laura Joplin, Michael Joplin, Julius Karpen, Kris Kristofferson, Juliette Lewis, Alecia Moore, David Niehaus, D.A. Pennebaker, Travis Rivers, Powell St. John, Bob Weir, Jae Whitaker, Chan Marshall (narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: FilmRise
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-12-04 (Limited release)
"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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.