Venice Film Festival: Janis: Little Girl Blue

DENMARK - APRIL 19: Photo of Janis JOPLIN; Janis Joplin, posed, smoking cigarette (Photo by Jan Persson/Redferns)
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Directed by Amy Berg
Narrated by Chan Marshall aka Cat Power

by Katharine Fry

The 27 club keeps adding to its list of illustrious members. Alongside Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison sit newer members Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. These later members both share something in common with another of the cohort, Janis Joplin. They are all recent subjects of big screen documentaries put together using archival footage. Janis: Little Girl Blue, written and directed by Amy Berg traces Joplin’s life and career from her childhood in Texas to her death at age 27 from a heroin overdose in what has appeared to be a peaceful and productive time of her with addiction behind.  Though some of the archival footage may suffer in quality through its digitization, Berg cleverly weaves together a near seamless narrative. TV interviews, recording sessions and concert performances are interspersed with talking head spots from those who knew, loved and worked with Janis, while Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power breathes life into Janis’ words, an apt choice with her husky Southern accent and sense of understanding due to her own collisions with substance abuse and mental health problems.

We learn about Janis’ liberal radical views beginning with her passion for racial integration that made her the school bullies’ target until for her senior years to her days of sexual experimentation in the Haight area of San Francisco. She is drawn to the home of the Grateful Dead that becomes an epicenter for all runaway creative misfits and for the first time she feels like she is among her people. One night at a party, almost by accident, she starts singing and the results astonish everyone including her.

Janis’ passion is suddenly clear to her and she sets about singing any time any place any how for the next few years at folk drop in nights. She knows who her idols are and carefully learns the craft of the blues from the likes of Odetta and Otis Redding. Her burgeoning talent is nurtured and supported by her time with Big Brother and the Holding Company. While they appear as goofy quippy boys, her seriousness about music’s potential is evident. For Janis, music is an energy exchange and a connection between musician and audience. She wants people to “Get off your butt and feel things!”

Her music is also the place that all of Janis’ hurt feelings are laid bare. In every song there is a sense of her being abandoned by a man, of being not quite right, not quite chosen. One reporter describes her songs as ‘desperate mating calls’ while Janis herself points to the donkey that stupidly follows the carrot on a stick all day, never realising the reward will always be out of reach. The donkey, for Janis, is a woman.

Though she is not pushed around by record industry insiders, there is still an uncomfortable display of Janis’ fragility when interviewers lead her to confront her past. She was voted ‘Ugliest Man on Campus’ at University and when cameras follow her to her ten year high school reunion, all Janis’ beads, boas and bravado cannot protect her from the pain of admitting that she never really hung out, had a crowd, went to games or was invited to prom.

Bad memories and lingering insecurities notwithstanding, her exuberant lust for life jumps off the screen in every spine-tingling live performance captured on film. The intimacy and rawness of her music and presence is heart stopping, and spending this time with Janis is like taking a bath in honey. Dive in.


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