Amy Berg has done it again: Her new documentary, “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” chronicles the late Janis Joplin’s life in an exciting, captivating, and honest way.
The film not only documents Joplin’s rise to fame, but also her deep-rooted need for acceptance and her struggles with bandmates, love, and substance abuse. The film begins in Joplin’s Texan hometown, where she was scorned by her classmates for looking different and proposing such far-out ideas like integration in schools. Joplin’s experience of being bullied and unaccepted in her youth stuck with her throughout her life and fueled her desire for approval.
In addition to chronicling her life, the documentary does a superb job of portraying the rise of the San Francisco music scene and Joplin’s role within it.
Unlike the typical, perfectly polished popstar, Joplin was boisterous, messy, flawed, but also more passionate than anything else. She was coarse, free, and sexual. She defied all the norms dictated by the conservative society in which she grew up during the 1950s. When she finally broke out of Texas, Joplin soared to the top. With a nod to her musical influences—Odetta, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding—the film illustrates the trailblazing, freewheeling nature of Joplin’s music, as she became the first female musician to capture the essence of rock ’n’ roll in a time when that genre was heavily male-dominated.
Throughout the film, all the scenes depicting Joplin were taken from archived footage. The film also features interviews with many of Joplin’s closest friends and family.
Interspersed throughout the film are voiceovers of letters she wrote to her family, dating from the time she left home in Port Arthur in 1963 to her untimely death in 1970. These newly released letters depict Joplin’s most intimate feelings. Despite her wild success, Joplin’s personal reservations and loneliness pervade her letters.
Though it depicts the star’s inner afflictions, “Janis: Little Girl Blue” is not gloomy. Instead, it paints Joplin as a fully formed person, not an inconceivable icon of rock ’n’ roll. The film doesn’t focus on her heroin addiction or her tragic death—rather, it highlights her vivacity in every endeavor.
The film calls upon many instantly recognizable events in Joplin’s career, from her first highly
publicized performance at the Monterey Pop Festival to her iconic Woodstock show. Though these clips showcase Joplin’s vast musical range—from her raw, bluesy vocals to her frenzied, passionate screams—they also provide the classic, expected depiction of the idol. It is the rarely seen footage of recording sessions and tour bus jams that demonstrate Joplin’s dynamic nature and make Berg’s masterpiece extraordinary.
Yet, just as in real life, the film’s portrayal of Joplin’s death provides a heartbreaking finale just when she seemed to have finally kicked her heroin habit. Those interviewed for the documentary relate such sentimental accounts of their memory of her death that one cannot help but feel a sense of loss at Joplin’s passing.
Overall, rather than simply obsess over Joplin’s tragedy, Berg’s film creates a dynamic illustration of the messy-haired, freewheeling genius that was the true Janis Joplin.
Joplin’s mantra throughout the film—and her life—can be summarized by her famous quote: “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”