We’ve had a year filled with monumental bio-docs on some of the most legendary singers including: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; What Happened, Miss Simone; and the Academy Award Winning Amy. Now this great year for music bio-docs seems to have climaxed with the long anticipated documentary tribute to Janis Joplin; Janis: Little Girl Blue. Since the singer’s death, there has been a demand for such a film but somehow it has never been made until now.
Directed by Amy Berg, who made a name for herself in the documentary world with her revealing feature – Deliver Us from Evil – dealing with sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. If you only recognised her name before, her latest work is going to commit it to your memory. The documentary is constructed around a collection of archive footage, gig recordings, recent interviews with friends and family and, of course, Joplin herself. The beating heart of the documentary though has to be the reading of Joplin’s personal letters home by fellow southern soul, Cat Power.
Janis’ life is the story of the outsider. She grew up in a boring, white, middle class suburb in Port Arthur surrounded by a caring, yet distant family. When she discovered she could sing, she joined the school choir but was kicked out by the teacher and was constantly bullied by her peers for the rest of her school years. Janis became one of the few individuals in a school full of prom-queens, but her peers continued to ridicule her. The most brutal of jibes she would face came just when she was gaining some self-esteem; a fraternity at the University of Austin crowned her “Ugliest Man on Campus” in a local newspaper. This was devastating for Janis and accounts from her friends who star in the documentary tell of how she then left Texas for San Fransisco, where she would dive head first into the Rock ’n’ Roll scene.
At this point in the film we hear from a stream of ex-lovers (men and women, black and white) who recount funny, heart-warming anecdotes of the Woodstock sensation, but she was unlucky in her love life too. The drug-dealer she fell head-over-heels for abandoned her after asking her father’s permission to marry Janis. It is undoubtedly a sad documentary, sprinkled with moments of laughter and joy. That isn’t a criticism though: it’s approprtiate, because that is how Janis’ short, explosive life was. However, this docu-portrait is particularly refreshing because it dedicates more time to the remarkable success Janis Joplin enjoyed as the First Lady of Rock and Roll, rather than dwelling on her tragic, untimely passing, which is something Montage of Heck and Amy are both guilty of.
Berg’s film celebrates this astounding woman who was unapologetic of her gender, her sexuality, and her talent. Janis Joplin, kitted out with in-hair boas, tonnes of rings and massive glasses, claimed a place for women in Rock and this documentary commends her for it. What makes this piece even sweeter is that it was realised by Amy Berg, a leading female documentary-maker in a male-dominated industry. It was only appropriate for her to tell the tale of such a spectacular outsider.
Image courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images