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Janis Joplin’s inner child

A tender documentary premieres in Venice, and portrays a singer who was ferocious but easily hurt

Nicholas Barber | September 8th 2015

Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, “Amy”, premiered at Cannes this year. But the Venice Film Festival has gone one better with “Janis”, which tells the all-too-brief life story of a music legend who is often spoken of as Winehouse’s spiritual forebear, Janis Joplin. Both were confessional singer-songwriters with preternaturally mature, rasping voices. Both were heroin addicts. And both died at the age of 27. “Janis”, which is produced by Alex Gibney and directed by Amy Berg, is a more conventional, less cinematic documentary than “Amy”. But its story of unfulfilled potential is even more poignant.

Berg’s tender film is subtitled “Little Girl Blue”, which seems at first to be a condescending label to apply to an artist who found fame in her 20s: no one would put “little boy” in the title of a Jimi Hendrix documentary. But what Berg conveys so touchingly is that Joplin did remain, in some respects, a little girl. She was ferocious on stage and shrewd in the studio—as we see in footage of her recording “Summertime”—and she indulged in as much sex, drugs and rock’n’roll as anyone else in the Summer of Love. But the woman we’re shown in 1960s television clips, and who is remembered by several former associates, is also guileless, easily hurt and desperate for approval. She isn’t out to change the world. She just wants to find her place in it.

Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, a conservative oil town. At school, she was harassed for being pro-integration, and kicked out of the choir because she wouldn’t do as she was told. But, according to her brother and sister, she wasn’t a natural rebel: she simply didn’t have the conventional cheerleader prettiness which she and her peers aspired to. At the University of Texas she was voted “Ugliest Man on Campus”. Fifty years on, a fellow musician is in tears as he recalls just how deeply the insult wounded her.

It would be nice to say that Joplin had the last laugh. After all, when she moved—or fled—from Texas to San Francisco, she was embraced by the Haight-Ashbury hippy community, and her gale-force voice stunned the audience at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She had a number one album, “Cheap Thrills”, and she made regular chat-show appearances. But in one such appearance she mentions to Dick Cavett (also interviewed in the film) that she’ll be attending a tenth-anniversary high-school reunion. And there it is: footage of her return to Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur. Despite Joplin’s gold records, despite her stratospheric talent, despite her outlaw uniform of boas and bangles and oversized sunglasses, she is hardly the conquering hero. Sullen and subdued, she mutters resentfully that she wasn’t invited to the prom. She is still a little girl.

This girlishness is at its most heartbreaking in the extracts from Joplin’s letters and notebooks, which appear onscreen in her neat cursive handwriting, and are read out by Chan Marshall (aka the singer-songwriter Cat Power). Whereas Jim Morrison of the Doors was so completely estranged from his parents that he told reporters, falsely, that they were dead, Joplin kept writing to the folks back home. Often sounding as if she has just left for college, she assures them, time and again, that she is healthy, that she has met a wonderful man, that the recording sessions for her new album are going better than ever. Her letters are full of hope that her parents will be proud of her, alongside rueful acknowledgments that they probably won’t be. One of her final missives concludes, “Send criticisms to the above address.”

One difference between “Janis” and “Amy” is that, in Kapadia’s documentary, Winehouse is quickly disenchanted with success and bored of life, so the film becomes more depressing than tragic. Joplin, in contrast, never loses her youthful optimism and vulnerability, however many times a boyfriend leaves her or drug addiction claims her. That’s why “Janis” is so affecting. Up until the night when she takes heroin in a lonely motel room in 1970, there is always a chance that the little girl blue will grow into a happy woman. 

Janis: Little Girl Blue British release, October 13th

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