Janis: Little Girl Blue
It is axiomatic that each generation dislikes the music enjoyed by its predecessor fairs understand the musical taste of its successor. Those of us of the baby boom generation is perennial truth was a major contributor to the well-documented generation gap. Our births coincided with the advent of rock ‘n roll but as we started coming into our own our musical preferences greatly influenced by songs protesting the Vietnam War and the undeniable impact increased marijuana use and the widespread experimentation with of the psychotropic substances. Entirely new musical forms of being blended with such standards as rhythm and blues and the emergence of ‘hard rock’ that was not so much intended for dancing prolonged listening frequently in a pharmacologically altered mental state. One of the pioneers of this era music was a young woman from Texas; Janis Joplin. Like many people from this musical period of time a life was tragically cut short at the age of 27 attributed to an overdose of heroin exacerbated with alcohol abuse. Although her actual time producing music was short influence continues to be felt decades after her death. Her life is the subject of the latest film by noted documentarian, Amy Berg; ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’. Having just turned 16 I was fortunate enough to be of age to see her live at the Fillmore East in New York City’s Greenwich Village. She was appearing with her band, ‘Big Brother and the Holding Company ‘and remains one of the most memorable events ever to happen on that iconic stage that has showcased performances by the greatest performers in the history of music. This documentary is able to live up to the incredible legacy left by Janis Joplin. Anything less than the heartfelt consideration of this woman’s tragic life in the legacy she left behind would be an insult to Ms. Joplin and her fans. This film may be no started for us but it can serve as an important piece of cinema by introducing a new generation to her creativity.
One of the primary sources of information about Joplin’s life emerged from her own thoughts and observations as captured by letters she wrote to her collaborators, friends and family. This documentary demonstrates the powerful intensity that was imbued in every one of her songs as projected by trademark screams that punctuated her music. It was not a scream in the usual sense but rather was a synergistic release of all personal pain as a channel the turbulence of a generation. This anti-establishment sentiment that energized the vocal performances punctuated her usual wardrobe the consisted of an eclectic mix of what was often called ‘hippie chic’ put together from anything the court a fancy while perusing a secondhand shop or vintage clothing store. This refusal to conform would turn out to be the source of much of her anguish. In this film Ms. Berg consistently passes the dichotomy that was always the source of Joplin’s internal struggle between a powerful woman reinventing a musical genre and a little lost girl looking for acceptance on terms. By eschewing the traditional feminine trappings she left herself open to ridicule specifically about of the students attending the ‘University of Texas in Austin’, real paternity attempted to name her the ‘ugliest man on campuses. Events such as this continually served to isolate her from the rest of the people surrounding her. Even within the friendly environment of her bandmates at the end of the concert she was left alone with thoughts as the others went off one night with some groupies. She was able to at least partially deal with this pain of isolation and feeling of not fitting in to her music. It resonated with our generation that felt betrayed by their parents, sent off to a faraway country to fight in a war that would only benefit the government and large corporations. When the focus of the music intensified throughout the song culminating with a primal scream it was a catharsis not just for her personal pain before generation that felt disenfranchised.
The use of her personal correspondence does impart upon the film almost every sense of Joplin reaching out from her grave to tell her story. Revelations of her life provided by these letters is punctuated by several performances augmented by interviews with people who knew her best. It’s always been fairly well known that Joplin sexuality was rather fluid although with a whole relationship restricted man or woman they never seem to turn out as a long-term source of stability. While addressing this personal aspect of her life there are a few surprises that will take some of her lifelong fans by surprise. For example she had a love affair with the famous talk show host, Dick Cavett. Although widely remembered as a fairly conservative voice of his time those who remember his show on television will undoubtedly remember his interviews with many now iconic rock stars.
Even if you go into watching this film predisposed to appreciating Janis Joplin’s unabashed free-spirited nature the consideration of her early life is going to give you a different perspective of the forces that formed this icon of the 60s. She never fit in to any part of the social structure in her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. As a rights movement is gaining momentum in the Deep South many people in this part of Texas continue to embrace the prejudices they’ve held for more than a century. Having never been able to fit in one she started to achieve fame after performances in such venues as the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock there is still a part of her that remained unable to contend with being accepted by so many people. Such difficulties in her life remain the foundation of a musical style adding to the sheer honesty of her music.
A documentary of Janis Joplin’s life could not be complete without touching upon some of the most famous songs in her repertoire, particularly those that were popular during the years that comprise the peak of her career, 1967 through 1969. The recordings I have of her performing such songs as ‘Piece of My Heart’, pointing delivery places on the blues classic ‘Summertime’, a lapel shadow compared to film footage of watching her perform the songs. Watching her face and body language as she sings these familiar songs infuses them with a new dimension to the emotional impact of this music. She is not just performing the songs infuses them with emotional depth of such a personal nature that it cannot help her to bring out similar feelings deep within yourself. The one subject that cannot be ignored is a drug abuse much to her credit Ms. Berg handled this with a great amount of discretion and delicacy. She didn’t shy away from this aspect of Joplin’s life contributing factor to her death but is included in this biography and completely non-sensationalistic fashion. The documentary focuses as it should upon the life musical contributions Janis Joplin, on the influences that shaped her personality simultaneously giving rise to some of the great music about times and laying the groundwork for the true tragedies of the generation.