Thursday, January 11, 2018


If a fist could sing it would sound something like Janis Joplin. In fact, while watching Janis: Little Girl Blue, Amy Berg's 2015 documentary now on Netflix, it was fascinating to see how Joplin often sang with her fists clenched. Most female singers keep their hands open. For Joplin, music was associated with power and aggression. Listen to her best stuff, those bluesy epics that left most people with their mouths open in disbelief; she sounded like she was in a long fight and was trying to wear down a much bigger opponent, simply with her voice. And as they say about a lot of fighters who come away from hard battles, she won her share but there was a price to pay. True, Patti Smith or Madonna may have made a fist now and then, and some of the heavy metal women might punch the air, as did Sporty Spice, but Janis Joplin was working on a different plane than those women. As someone says late in the movie after Joplin has  overdosed on heroin, the poor woman not only felt her own emotions deeply, but she felt those of everyone else, too. It couldn't have been easy to be such a conduit in the turbulent 1960s.   

Janis: Little Girl Blue follows the usual pattern of the Joplin tale: the misfit girl from Port Arthur, Texas suffers the cruelty and small mindedness of the locals. Then she finds out she could sing. "It turned out I had this loud voice," she said. "It was quite a surprise." From there came a stint as a folk singer, long before the Beatles had landed, long before Dylan was on the air. She eventually joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, a twangy blues band that could barely keep up with her, or so the story goes. They don't sound bad in the documentary, and history has given them a bum rap, but they were definitely dumb guys. When it was time to be filmed at the Monterey Pop Festival, the boys  wouldn't sign release forms. Janis' moment to shine was nearly kaboshed by some stupid rivalry between San Francisco and LA. She got her way, though. She was like an alley cat that wandered in through the back door and took over the entire house.

It would be hard to make a bad documentary about Janis Joplin. The story is sad, and there's plenty of amazing footage out there. In this one, we hear snippets from her diary and letters home to her family (read by singer Cat Powers, who sounds a bit like Janis). There was a profound loneliness in her that wasn't fixed by fame or drugs, though she found some temporary comfort while performing. When she tries to explain the joy of being on stage, she usually dissolves into embarrassed giggles. Squares like Dick Cavett didn't get her, anymore than the jerks in Port Arthur had, the cruel types who'd voted her "Ugliest Man" as a sick  fraternity prank. When she returns for her high school class' 10th year reunion, she's not a conquering hero, but a bitter misfit. "I wasn't asked to the prom," she tells a local reporter, "and it pains me to this day." The irony is that Janis Joplin wasn't ugly at all. Seeing her in this movie, there's a kind of untamed sweetness to her, like a wacky lioness. 

The Joplin story has been told countless times in books and documentaries. There was even a successful stage production of her life story a few years ago. Janis: Little Girl Blue won't be the last time we hear this tragic saga. Berg does a fair job. We come away thinking Joplin never stood a chance, not with a coterie of junkies around her. Watch the footage of Joplin in Monterey, compared to her performance at Woodstock. Within two years, she'd gone from being a fiery blues goddess to a dazed parody. We meet some of her old friends, and they cry over her memory, but they weren't much help to her. She had relationships with both men and women, but it would be flippant to call her a lesbian or a bisexual. She was simply lonely, trying anything  to numb the pain. John Lennon is shown reacting to the news of her death. Ever thoughtful, and a junkie himself, Lennon suggests there's something wrong with our society, and wonders why so many people have to find ways to protect themselves from the harshness out there. One surprise was a bit from Country Joe McDonald, who dispels the the long held notion that he Janis were linked. "We weren't in love," he says. "There was no sizzle." From this side of the desk, if you couldn't sizzle with Janis, you couldn't sizzle with anybody, bub.

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