“I managed to pass my 27th birthday without really feeling it,” Janis Joplin remarks with tragic prescience in one of many bittersweet moments in Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, an engrossing new documentary from Oscar-nominee Amy Berg that brings the rock icon’s spirit to life 45 years after her untimely death.
How Joplin died is as much part and parcel of rock ‘n’ roll history as the screeching power of the songs she left behind—“Piece Of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Cry Baby.” Discovered dead from a heroin overdose in her Hollywood hotel room on October 4, 1970—alone, three weeks after Jimi Hendrix preceded her to the 27 Club, and just three days after recording her buoyant a cappella track “Mercedes Benz,” included posthumously on her second and final studio album, Pearl—the psychedelic blues rock queen quickly became a poster child for a generation, a fallen icon who’d blazed a dangerously ascendant path to stardom.
Although it traces her early San Francisco struggle years, her long and twisty relationship with drugs, and the start of her career proper with Big Brother and the Holding Company and beyond, Little Girl Blue has a different purpose in mind: To reintroduce audiences to Janis Joplin the woman and artist, whose singular talent and capacity to feel cauterized joy, pain, and loneliness into an extraordinary expression of life.
“That’s really the reason I did this film,” Berg told The Daily Beast after screening it for an audience of women filmmakers on a recent evening in Los Angeles. “I think that women in the 27 Club, women who have died early—Amy Winehouse and Janis are two of them—you don’t think about their talent, for some reason. Their legacy is about how they died. I really wanted Janis to be remembered for the artist that she was and the woman that she was.”
Berg has honed her craft by shining light into the darkest of corners—into the Roman Catholic Church (Deliver Us From Evil), within travesties of justice gone unnoticed (West of Memphis), in Hollywood’s predatory shadows (An Open Secret), and beyond the gates of Warren Jeffs’ FLDS cult (Prophet’s Prey). The rollicking and poignant Little Girl Blue is a change of pace, but it’s also been a passion project for Berg eight years in the making.
She’d been working on the project on and off since 2007, plagued by financing that came and went and tricky rights issues involving licensing Joplin’s story.
“There are two feature films that have exclusion contracts with [the estate],” Berg explained. “A documentary can’t be released within two years of a [competing project’s] release, and we didn’t know what the status of the script was, so the financiers kind of fell apart again… I was shooting and doing assemblies in between projects, but until I got the final sign off, I didn’t really start.”
When Berg’s small team did dive into Joplin’s life it was with the blessing of the singer’s estate and surviving siblings, both of whom appear in the film offering their remembrances of a rebellious young Janis growing up in Port Arthur, Texas. A wealth of personal photos and correspondence gave Berg intimate access to Joplin during her crucial formative years, including letters she wrote to her parents back home, spoken in a soft Southern twang for the film by musician Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power.
“This film is so close to my heart, and it was so much of just meditating on her letters, finding the performances I wanted to use in the film, and making the emotional connection between those and her life,” said Berg, adding, “I would like to have another year with Janis, to be honest.”
If documentary filmmaking is a form of cinematic detective work, Berg discovered clues to lesser-known parts of Joplin’s life in those revealing letters and interviews with the friends, lovers, and musicians who knew her. The film paints a portrait of a young misfit searching for her place in the world through hometown bullying and frequent heartbreak; a ballsy Texan girl whose toughness masked a deep-seated hurt and a need for validation evident even after she reached the pinnacle of wealth, fame, and pop success.
“It was so surprising that she needed so much from back home. It was also so surprising that she couldn’t just get rid of that,” said Berg.
In a painfully telling archival clip unearthed from a local news station in Houston, Joplin makes a public visit to her 10th high school reunion only to find that the former classmates who taunted her for being different are none too impressed by her international fame and star power.
“Her eyes behind the glasses… I know,” sighed Berg. “I think it was a moment when Janis realized she was barking up the wrong tree. She had all these expectations for that trip and she was not going to receive the accolades that she wanted from them. She expected them to treat her a certain way, but instead it was like she was still a weirdo to them.”
Joplin’s power was in her musical brilliance and legendary performances, which Little Girl Blue delivers in force with some amazing in-studio footage of Joplin hammering out some of her most famous arrangements. Berg also gets the help of a few iconic figures. Clive Davis gamely recalls how someone in the know keyed him in that something big was going to go down at the Monterey Pop Festival—where he showed up in khakis and a tennis sweater. Documentarian DA Pennebaker lends footage from his own seminal concert doc account of the star-studded counterculture happening when Joplin earned her breakthrough notice performing with Big Brother and the Holding Company alongside the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and The Mamas & The Papas, famously melting Mama Cass with her rendition of “Ball ‘n’ Chain.”
“I get a little weepy there,” admitted Berg. “It’s so beautiful, it’s like her coming out moment. You can just see that she’s there, she’s ready for it. When you’re giving so much of yourself and you come offstage, people expect you to be that same person. She gave you everything she had in that moment, and she still had to come up with more.”
One through line painfully present in Joplin’s life, the film says, was her achingly fruitless yearning for love that would last, the rawness of which she let loose on stage and through her music, and that voice. The energy she unleashed every night to her fans was never quite replenished after the crowds went home. In a hopeful twist of storytelling, Berg finds the man Joplin loved up until she died—her lover, David Niehaus.
“I found it interesting that she was such a sponge and she could soak up everybody else’s pain,” said Berg. “That was kind of why she used drugs. That David really understood about her.”
As Little Girl Blue eyes an awards season berth (it will compete for voter love with Amy, the Winehouse documentary also about an artist taken by tragedy much too early), it will certainly invigorate interest in Joplin’s body of work. Having the singer’s estate behind Little Girl Blue may also energize Hollywood’s efforts to give Joplin’s life the narrative biopic treatment.
“I think that this documentary will allow those other films to get made. It’s always difficult for the family to go through this experience and since they are so behind it, maybe that will help,” said Berg. And who could possibly do Janis justice on the big screen? “I think Amy Adams is amazing and personally, I think she would be great.”