Film Review: Documentary shows the rise and fall of ‘Janis’

When we see the name “Janis” in a film’s title, we don’t have to ask, “What Janis? Janis Paige? Conrad Janis? Janis Ian?” To become the default “owner” of a first name requires both fame/notoriety and an uncommon enough name. Like Jimi ... Gilda ... or Janis Joplin.

The basic outline of Joplin’s life and career is well known to many, particularly those old enough to have seen it unfold in real time: as a teen, a misfit in her home town, Port Arthur, Texas; a struggling singer in San Francisco; huge success with Big Brother and the Holding Co.; conflicts with the band; working with other musicians and bands, which only served to make her a bigger solo star; drug and alcohol problems throughout it all; death in a motel from an overdose while making her fourth (and arguably best) album.

It’s been 45 years since her death — how’d that happen? — so Amy Berg’s new documentary is, in a sense, a period film. It’s inevitable, given that Joplin’s fame coincided with the most indelible period of cultural change in living memory. Her big breakthrough was at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, the beginning of the Summer of Love. She died only a little more than three years later. This was 10 months after the Altamont concert made explicit the cracks that were early signs of the crumbling of the counterculture.

“Janis: Little Girl Blue” has the misfortune of showing up a few months after the release of “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s justly praised biopic of Amy Winehouse. They are not the same film; for all the similarities, the stories of Joplin and Winehouse are not identical.

More importantly than the biographical details, the different historical settings largely dictate the method each documentarian uses. Winehouse was born in the era of home video; by the time her career took off, virtually everyone had a camera-equipped phone on his person. Kapadia had an enormous amount of footage to wrangle into form.

Joplin died before those developments, so the range of available footage was much more limited. There are filmed performances and some material shot for documentaries and the news; and a few snippets of “home movies.” Berg had to go the more common route of supplementing that immediate source material with stills, audio, and recent interviews with Joplin’s colleagues. (Big Brother lead guitarist Sam Andrew died between the filming and the movie’s release.)

Fortunately, Berg had access to many of Joplin’s letters, which are read on the soundtrack by singer Cat Power. The reminiscences of the interviewees are even more central, particularly those of Janis’ siblings and a few ex-lovers.

The film’s use of concert footage makes a strong case for Janis as an artist. Some people — I’m one — were resistant to her style at the time; she seemed unmodulated, as though she had only two levels of intensity — 10 (wrought) and 11(overwrought). She’d start with her heart and soul in torment and then have to ratchet things up further. It’s still an issue, but the concert footage Berg includes shows a greater range.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).