Little Girl Blue
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