Janis: Little Girl Blue
I watched this documentary the day I found out that local singer Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots, Velvet Revolver) died. He had a long history of drug abuse and was found dead on his tour bus. A few days earlier, the terrific Amy Winehouse documentary was released on DVD. Winehouse joined Joplin in the “27 Club” — musicians that have died at that age (Robert Johnson, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Brian Jones, and as we find out in the movie — Joplin boyfriend and Grateful Dead keyboardist Pigpen McKernan).
This documentary isn’t nearly as compelling or emotional as Amy. They rely on archival footage that many of us have seen before and it’s told in a rather conventional manner.
Director Amy Berg has done some compelling documentaries before (Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis, Prophet’s Prey).
Things start promising enough as we learn a little about her childhood, and we get to hear from her siblings. It’s great to hear a high school friend talk about her doing a perfect rendition of an Odetta song. Another classmate talks about her getting kicked out of the choir. We see in photos and letters she wrote, how she purposely started dressing different.
It’s sad to hear about the bullying she dealt with at the University of Texas. She was voted the school’s “ugliest man.” When you hear singer Powell St. John, a long-time friend discuss it, you can’t help but feel as sad as he does.
There are some interesting surprises. Since we’ve all seen the clips of Joplin appearing on Dick Cavett, it was bizarre the way he basically admits to having an affair with her. It was also strange, and sort of sad, when we hear a letter Joplin wrote stating that her and Country Joe MacDonald (Country Joe and the Fish) were “the cutest thing,” and he sort of dismisses the relationship.
Joplin was known to write a lot of letters and scrapbook. Many of her letters have hit the auction blocks over the years. Well, Berg got the very talented singer Chan Marshall (Cat Power) to narrate them. Sometimes they’re powerful. Other times, the narrations didn’t quite work.
The concert footage was a blast, especially her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. It was also interesting to see her backstage, or in the studio with Big Brother and the Holding Company noodling around on songs that would become staples on classic rock radio.
The documentary just didn’t explore many of the topics I would’ve rather had more time devoted to. Her obvious influence after seeing Otis Redding; her bisexuality (one female lover speaks briefly), the drug and alcohol addiction, bullying. I suppose when you have a woman that can belt out Cry Baby, Little Girl Blue, Down on Me, Summertime, Piece of my Heart — why not just go to the concert footage?
I read a book two psychiatrists wrote (Living in the Dead Zone) about how they think Morrison and Joplin both had Borderline Personality Disorder, something that most know nothing about. It would’ve been interesting to hear some of those takes on her personality. The way she clung on to lovers, it seems Borderline is something she probably has.
If I made a list of my Top 25 musicians from the ‘60s, Joplin wouldn’t make my list, yet I have three of her albums. Perhaps the hardcore fans will love this; especially with all the delays in making the bio-pic film which has been talked about for decades.
It’s not going to be at the Gaslamp Reading for much longer, and it’s worth catching.
2 ½ stars out of 5.