Hard to believe she was only part of American musical culture for less than 4 years, but Janis Joplin pioneered the path for all the women who followed including Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Pink, Joan Jett, and Melissa Etheridge, who was once going to portray Janis in a film that sadly, was never made. Janis, who was raised in Port Arthur Texas along the Gulf Coast couldn’t wait to get out of town. Port Arthur was very bigoted and far too conservative place to understand the free spirit of the young Janis Joplin. She landed in San Francisco in 1965 just as the bourgeoning subculture of an explosion of new music was emerging.
“Janis: Little Girl Blue” is a well crafted documentary by Amy Berg, who pulled no punches in illustrating both the triumphs, failures, and personal tragedy of Janis and her many demons. Janis was picked on as a kid, a victim of severe bullying. Her low point was being kicked out of her school choir, not for her singing capability, but for being “different”. Thus, when Janis sang the “Blues,” it was the real deal. She was truly putting her soul on the line when performing “Piece Of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain.” Highlights of the film include Janis belting out “Ball and Chain” at The Monterey Pop Festival, a moment in time in time that changed her life, as the camera panned over to the front row with Mama Cass Elliot’s jaw dropping in awe. Rare archival film of Janis and Big Brother recording Gershwin’s “Summertime” is also all encompassing.
I was fortunate enough to have grown up in the bay area when Janis, Santana, the Chambers Bros, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane were exploding onto the airwaves, changing the Rock music scene. But, one of my biggest regrets in life was that my mom thought I was too young to see Janis in her early days with Big Brother. Janis was so close, yet so far away. Even at an early age, I got the message that Janis was speaking directly to me (and other kids) about life, love and politics. As a San Francisco native, I must say that one thing missing from “Little Girl Blue” were any interviews with Janis’ contemporary, and close friend, Grace Slick. Grace was asked to participate in the film, but declined saying that her fans “didn’t want to see her at 75.” Happily all three surviving members of the SF band Janis fronted from 1966-1968 that made her famous (Big Brother & The Holding Co) were prominently featured, along with Country Joe McDonald who reportedly had a long on again, off again relationship with Janis. However, Joe denies it in the movie, even though he wrote and sang a very romantic song about her in 1967, simply called “Janis.”
“Little Girl Blue” also is aptly named, as it describes Janis perfectly. First recorded by one of Janis’ heroes “Nina Simone,” Janis brought it to a much wider audience. Odetta,”Big Mama Thornton,” Billie Holiday, and Bob Dylan were also strong influences on Janis. Her music proves that. Janis spilled her guts out on the stage. She wasn’t performing, she was telling her life story being “Buried Alive In The Blues”. Janis’s siblings Linda and Michael Joplin, who both attended the screening for “Little Girl Blue” provided long lost letters from Janis to her family after heading West in the late 1960’s. The most poignant stating to her mother was, “I managed to pass my 27th birthday without even feeling it.” Nine months later she was found dead of an overdose after dining at the legendary Barney’s Beanery in Santa Monica. Janis’s only solo hit, albeit posthumously, was Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGhee,” her version of which Kris highly praises in the film.
“Little Girl Blue” could have had more information on the musical evolution of Janis, as I thought she never sounded as quite good after leaving the heavy Rock/Blues sound of “Big Brother” for a studio assembled band with horns, that competed with, if not diminished Janis’s powerful vocals. But, “Little Girl Blue” is one of the best musical documentaries of the year, along with “What happened Miss Simone.” Ironic they both came out around the same time, as both sang “Little Girl Blue.”