From the 2013 Broadway production A Night with Janis Joplin to Amy Berg's new documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, Janis Joplin continues to be a subject of fascination 45 years after her death at the age of 27.
The picture Berg paints is of an outcast born in Port Arthur, Texas, who emigrated to San Francisco in 1963 on the cusp of the city's cultural revolution. Joplin had done some singing back home, a little folk and a lot of blues. Thanks to promoter Chet Helms, she fell in with a group of musicians who would become her first band – Big Brother and the Holding Company. The group's guitarist Sam Andrew and drummer Dave Getz guide us through this period with talking-head commentaries. Andrew, who passed away in February, admits that he and Joplin were drug buddies. Their drug of choice was heroin.
So far ahead of her time, Janis Joplin had no role models other than older female stars like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, who also succumbed to drugs and alcohol.
What drove Joplin to her addiction is pure rock & roll. She wasn't the prettiest girl growing up and had a hard time meeting guys (though the film catalogs her boyfriends, including the Grateful Dead's Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and "Country Joe" McDonald). At one point she complains that all the guys in the band would shack up with groupies after shows, but she was usually left by herself. Did Joplin die from loneliness?
Musically, we watch as her boisterous blues style evolves into powerful R&B influenced by Otis Redding. At the suggestion of her new manager, Albert Goldman, Joplin parts with Big Brother for a succession of bands – Kosmic Blues and Full Tilt Boogie. Her stuttering, staccato delivery became the stuff of legend.
With her big voice, feather boas and groovy fashion style, Joplin was an icon of the era, one of the first women to step forward in rock. Along with fellow San Francisco singer, Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick, Joplin was a forerunner for those who came after her like Stevie Nicks, Chrissie Hynde and Melissa Etheridge.
The assorted music and clips do a solid job piecing together the sounds of Joplin's life. Some will be familiar, while others are rarer with jolts of recognition, such as the Woodstock footage that never made it into the 1970 concert movie (Joplin's performance there was marred by her druggy stupor) and scenes from Festival Express with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. The latter Dead member recalls that Joplin fell off the wagon on Oct. 4 in a Hollywood motor inn and overdosed.
So far ahead of her time, Joplin had no role models other than older female stars like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, who also succumbed to drugs and alcohol. She was throwback to that era dressed up in psychedelic clothes.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is currently playing at select theaters and is available on YouTube.