Lit­tle Girl Blue

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Forty-five years af­ter Ja­nis Jo­plin died of a heroin over­dose in Los An­ge­les, her friends, rel­a­tives, lovers, and col­leagues still get emo­tional when spec­u­lat­ing what more the rock pi­o­neer might have done had she lived be­yond her 27th year. We hear from them through in­ter­views, home movies, let­ters, and re­hearsal and con­cert footage in Amy Berg’s new doc­u­men­tary.

“She took a flag and made a place in rock and roll for women,” says singer Melissa Etheridge, who is one of nu­mer­ous women who have been con­sid­ered to por­tray Jo­plin in the many biopics pro­posed — and shelved — over the years. (Peter New­man worked for two decades to se­cure rights to Jo­plin’s mu­sic and told the web­site Busi­ness In­sider in Novem­ber that shoot­ing starts in Au­gust 2016.)

What­ever the fate of such projects, mu­sic lovers who know Jo­plin only through the more pol­ished voices of cover artists can dis­cover in Ja­nis: Lit­tle Girl

Blue what made the singer a leg­end, de­spite the brevity of her tran­scen­dent ca­reer. The story be­gins in Port Arthur, Texas, where Jo­plin ac­quired her deep-down blues. She wanted to con­form, but her class­mates mocked Jo­plin’s looks, in­tel­li­gence, and pro­gres­sive views. Re­jected by her peers, she be­friended other bo­hemi­ans and mu­si­cians and be­gan singing folk, blues, and “hill­billy mu­sic” in bars and cafés.

In 1963, she hitch­hiked to San Fran­cisco with a friend. “The so­cial ac­cep­tance she al­ways wanted was there,” says her sis­ter, Laura. “It was so re­fresh­ing to some­one who’d al­ways been an out­cast.” Jo­plin re­turned to Texas in 1965 to kick metham­phetamine and at­tend col­lege, but she re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia be­fore long to au­di­tion with Big Brother and the Hold­ing Com­pany. Her gritty voice and en­er­getic per­for­mances at­tracted fans and mu­sic la­bels. Record con­tracts fol­lowed, with Columbia Records pro­duc­ing the band’s best-known al­bum, Cheap Thrills, in 1968, when Jo­plin was twenty-five.

The singer felt a kin­ship with Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Odetta, and Big Mama Thorn­ton — her sis­ters in soul — and she trans­formed jazz and blues clas­sics like “Sum­mer­time” and the film’s ti­tle song — a 1935 Rodgers and Hart tune — into sooth­ing R& B lul­la­bies. “She could feel ev­ery­body’s pain; that’s one of the rea­sons she did heroin,” says David Niehaus, who met Ja­nis in Brazil in 1970 and helped her kick heroin but left when she started us­ing again. “Ja­nis couldn’t block it out.”

Road man­ager John Byrne Cooke stayed with Jo­plin on her as­cen­dant jour­ney af­ter she left Big Brother — un­til Oct. 4, 1970, when he dis­cov­ered her body on a mo­tel room floor. Be­hind the tough su­per­star ex­te­rior, he saw the “lit­tle girl lost” who died be­fore she could mas­ter her self- de­struc­tive im­pulses and find some­thing other than drugs and al­co­hol to soothe her melan­choly. “When she was on­stage and do­ing well, it was great,” Cooke says. “She al­ways hated the down­times.” Big Brother gui­tarist Sam An­drew’s voice catches when he says, “Emo­tional hon­esty is what she had. … That’s the price you pay for feel­ing at that level.”

The pro­found em­pa­thy that pow­ered Jo­plin’s mu­sic drew peo­ple to her. One of the film’s most poignant mo­ments shows her mother, Dorothy, read­ing a let­ter of con­do­lence from a fan: “Al­though I never met Ja­nis, she was my very best friend in the whole world.” Many of Jo­plin’s con­tem­po­raries will iden­tify with that sen­ti­ment. Berg’s film re­opens the wound and rekin­dles the grief of los­ing some­one spe­cial when she was just get­ting started. — Sandy Nelson

The doc­u­men­tary also airs this spring on PBS’ Amer­i­can Masters se­ries. Check lo­cal list­ings.

A piece of her heart: Ja­nis Jo­plin

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