'Janis: Little Girl Blue': Venice Review

Janis Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Doesn't reinvent the rockumentary wheel but tells the legendary singer's story with vitality and heart.

Director Amy Berg talks to Joplin intimates and delves into personal letters and scrapbooks, assembling a collage tribute to the blazing comet in this doc for PBS' 'American Masters' series.

It's easy to identify possible reasons for the ongoing stop-start development of a Hollywood bio-drama on Janis Joplin in Amy Berg's dense and thoroughly engrossing documentary portrait, Janis: Little Girl Blue. Unlike the recent Amy, to which this film will inevitably be compared, there are no exploitative enablers, and the blues-rock idol’s abrupt self-destruction at age 27 occurred in what appears to have been a relatively tranquil, mostly drug-free period of rewarding professional productivity. That makes it a challenge to find a unifying thread, though Berg does paper illuminating personal observations throughout, before landing a satisfying emotional punch at the end.

The doc itself has had a long journey to the screen. With the full cooperation of the singer's estate (younger siblings Laura and Michael Joplin contribute revealing insights), Berg initiated work on the project in 2007. But momentum sputtered for several years until Alex Gibney, whose own output includes a number of music-themed nonfiction films, came on board as a producer to assemble financing. Janis will air under the PBS American Masters banner in the U.S., but this is essential viewing for '60s counterculture junkies, which should ensure specialized exposure worldwide.

Berg enlists Chan Marshall (aka singer-songwriter Cat Power) as narrator, chiefly to read excerpts from Joplin's letters, either to her family at home in Port Arthur, Texas, or to friends and lovers. This turns out to be a smart choice. Marshall doesn't "act" her readings but — with her gentle Southern accent and self-evident connection to the subject as a female performer — simply lets the words and sentiments speak for themselves. That helps create the illusion that, despite lots of talking heads, the binding voice and perspective of the documentary are Joplin's own, and very much those of an outsider yearning for validation. Revealingly, she defines ambition in one letter to her mother as a need to be loved.

A strong sense emerges of a woman determined to pursue a life and career that embodied her firm humanistic liberal values, her politics based in empathy and freedom, who at times had to work to maintain a confidence in her talent that didn't always come easily. That underlying insecurity seems grounded in the frustration of every unpretty girl in a culture that put women into constricting boxes.

Enduring images of Joplin depict the brash, loud Texan, swigging booze and kicking back with the guys; screeching and wailing through electrifying performances of what one music critic eloquently described as "desperate mating calls," clad in psychedelic vaudeville getups of feathers, fur, satin, velvet and beads. That side is amply illustrated here, both onstage and off.

However, as her sister points out, a core part of Janis ached to be one of those beautiful, fine-boned, slender, desirable women she saw in magazines. This might seem a boilerplate observation, but it fits with points made later in the doc, outlining how Janis watched all the guys in her various bands go home with gorgeous girls, while she often found herself alone after the show. That post-performance downtime, according to multiple observers, was what made her most anxious and fed her on-off drug habit.

A number of interviewees also point to the lingering bruises of her school years, when she was ridiculed and ostracized for her looks and her vocal pro-integration stance in an environment where there were still active KKK chapters. Her instinctual response, according to friends from the time, was one of aggressive rebellion, picking fights and raising hell. "That made her real dangerous to take to a bar," says one high school pal. But the letters also reveal touching evidence of a girl desperate for the approval of others, perhaps most of all her conservative, religious parents.

The wealth of terrific archive material includes a number of TV interviews that show Joplin to be articulate about her music and her reciprocal connection with her audience. Tellingly, these segments range from respectful exchanges with her friend Dick Cavett (also interviewed here) to an insulting Hollywood Palace clip in which host Don Adams openly mocks Joplin's "groovy" communication skills following a performance spot for Big Brother and the Holding Company, thus demonstrating that the counterculture movement remained a joke to the squares.

Lovely snapshots from Joplin's early years in San Francisco during the Haight-Ashbury era after she first fled Texas show her joy at being part of a welcoming community. One photo of her on a crowded stoop with the Grateful Dead and a swarm of friends speaks volumes, and in image after image, she's seen tossing back her head in a raucous cackle.

But she was also introduced to heroin during the period, spending the rest of her life vowing to get clean only to tumble back into substance abuse. The film indicates clearly how friends like Peggy Caserta encouraged her habit, notably leading to the famously messy state in which Joplin appeared at Woodstock. However, it also becomes apparent that Janis was her own worst enabler.

A melancholy vein runs through the doc showing her string of romantic disappointments, in short-lived relationships with both men and women. Her early abandonment by San Francisco meth dealer Peter de Blanc after he had asked Joplin's father for her hand in marriage left scars, but the saddest story is of David Niehaus, a free-spirit traveler she met in Brazil during an extended break from drugs and booze. In his wistful reflections and in her letters, that truncated love affair stands as a missed opportunity for lasting happiness.

A number of books and theater pieces about Joplin have gone far deeper into analyzing her musical legacy and influential performance style. However, Berg covers the basics, from Joplin's affinity for the blues, notably performers like Odetta, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, to her emulation of certain characteristics more common to black performers like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Never quite fitting into the burgeoning folk scene that coincided with her emergence, she forged her own style.

D.A. Pennebaker and Clive Davis provide stirring recaps of her breakthrough as a headliner at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and clips from Pennebaker's film of the event include a great shot of Mama Cass in the audience, visibly blown away after Big Brother's set. There's also coverage of the growing divide between her fame and talent and the band's less exceptional musicianship, which became an increasing cause of restlessness, fueled by the music press.

Footage shot by Pennebaker for a separate project shows friction in the studio during the recording of Joplin's distinctive cover of Gershwin's "Summertime." And her inexperience at actually leading a band in any way beyond the microphone is seen as a liability in the post-Big Brother years. But while there are numerous dynamite performance clips, Berg's film is generally more revealing on a personal level than as an appreciation of her music.

Deftly assembled by editors Billy McMillin, Garret Price and Joe Beshenkovsky into a conventionally chronological but efficient narrative, Janis acquires most of its poignancy in the somewhat rushed concluding stretch. Her recording of songs for her posthumously released final album, Pearl, was some of her best, most controlled work, and her collaboration with producer Paul Rothschild seemed to promise more career longevity than even Joplin herself had ever expected. Tender recollections by Kris Kristofferson of first hearing the demo for her definitive take on his song "Me & Bobby McGee," which became her biggest-selling single, cement the impression that she was just entering a new period of artistic maturity.

While fans continue to wait for the Joplin biopic, Berg's film presents a well-rounded, deeply admiring picture of a maverick talent who paved the way for countless female rockers, some of whom, namely PinkMelissa Etheridge and part-time musician Juliette Lewis, pay tribute over the end credits.

Production companies: Disarming Films, Jigsaw Productions, Thirteen Productions’ American Masters, in association with Sony Music Entertainment, Union Entertainment Group
Director-writer: Amy Berg
Producers: Alex Gibney, Amy Berg, Jeffrey Jampol, Katherine LeBlond
Executive producers: Michael Kantor, Susan Lacy, Noah C. Haeussner, Stacey Offman, Michael Raimondi
Directors of photography: Francesco Carrozzini, Paula Huidobro, Jenna Rosher
Music: Joel Shearer
Editors: Billy McMillin, Garret Price, Joe Beshenkovsky
Narrator: Chan Marshall
Sales: Content Media Corporation

No rating, 104 minutes.