Arts & Events

Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue
Opens December 4 at The Roxie in San Francisco

Gar Smith
Thursday December 03, 2015 - 04:41:00 PM

This was the first time I ever teared-up while reading a press kit. I guess this is just more proof that any encounter with Janis Joplin is bound to be emotional. For survivors of the Sixties, there are certain moments that are emotionally welded into the collective memory: the Kennedy assassination, the walk on the moon, and Janis Joplin exploding on the screen during D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop. And I'm sure the impact of Janis' hurricane performances will continue to blast people off their feet and cause younger jaws to drop for decades to come. (Look at the Monterey Pops crowd shots after Janis has left the stage. Stunned, wide-eyed people smiling and mouthing the universal reaction: "Wow!")

Amy Berg's long-in-the-making bio-doc packs in a lot of "wow" moments but it also offers a backlog of "ows" as it follows the hardscrabble kid from Port Arthur, Texas on her roller-coaster ride from withering local ridicule to international acclaim.


A big-hearted tomboy hurt by childhood jeers, Janis spent her life looking for love and acceptance. She found a good measure of both in the cheers and applause of her audiences. It was harder to find the same security in the arms of another. 

According to Berg, "the most striking thing about Janis is how utterly lonely and unlovable she often felt once the crowds went home." Through it all, Janis was "a vessel for our collective pain—the raw, eloquent voice through which our suffering gets duly acknowledged and nakedly expressed." 

When she unleashed her rendition of "Ball and Chain" at Woodstock, Joplin was not only channeling Bessie Smith, Odetta and Big Mama Thornton, she was also evoking Otis Redding. 

Deeply hurt as a young woman taunted for being ugly, Janis became a powerful engine of female empowerment and, in the process, she became something of a beauty in her own right. Stomping the stage, shaking her hair and body, she became a goddess of intense sexuality and fierce honesty. She got her revenge on her childhood tormenters by prancing in bikinis and posing for avant-garde nude shots dressed in feathers and beads. 

The pain and need that she expressed on stage prompted other artists to pay unique tribute in the form of songs addressed to Joplin—Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," the Mamas and Papas' "Pearl," Joan Baez's "In the Quiet Morning," Don McLean's "American Pie" ("I met a girl who sang the blues/And I asked her for some happy news/ But she just smiled and turned away….") 




Unfortunately for this reviewer, the DVD I received was damaged. About halfway through, the images and sound began to freeze and stall. This proved an insurmountable problem, especially since one of the immutable laws of nature is: You can't interrupt Janis Joplin. 

Apologizing to the friends I had invited to watch the film with me, I recalled an encounter I once had with legendary rock promoter Bill Graham. 

It was on the UC Berkeley campus where Janis had just staged a show (in Pauley Ballroom, I believe). This was post-Big Brother and Janis had performed with a band of pick-up musicians. The band wasn't tight and Graham was displeased with the result. Referring to Janis' incendiary performance and the band's warmed-over back-up, Bill kvetched: "It was like being offered a fine filet mignon served on a dirty plate." 

I ditched the screener. This review is based on the first 50 minutes—up to Joplin's breakout moment in Monterey and well before her tragic flame-out at the age of 27. (I'm looking forward to watching the entire film on the big screen.) 

Thanks to Joplin's family, Berg's film not only displays the typical scraps of childhood—from early photos to grade reports—but also captures Janis' emotional struggle in the form of diary jottings, journal notes, postcards and letters-to-home. Janis' thoughts are brought to life by Chan Marshall (a southern actor and singer also known as Cat Power) who sounds enough like Jopin that it's like having Janis, herself, providing the on-air commentary. 

There are abundant interviews with schoolmates and fellow musicians, including members of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Everyone who survived appears to have aged well. Sam Andrew, Bob Weir, Peter Albin, David Getz all share their memories. Dick Cavett (improbably, it would seem, one of Janis' many lovers) also agreed to a coy personal interview (one that ends in a revealing explosion of delicious laughter). 

Janis' romances ranged from The Grateful Dead's Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, to Johnny Winter and actor/singer Kris Kristofferson (who, ironically, later appeared opposite Bette Midler in "The Rose," the story of Joplin-like blues-belter and her star-crossed boyfriend). 

In Chan Marshall's voice, we hear Janis excitedly sharing the news of a new "boyfriend. He's also a Capricorn " Janis was referring to Country Joe McDonald who also appears in the documentary. While Country Joe insists the two were just platonic pals, it's clear that he deeply loved—and still misses—the little girl with the big grin and gut-busting cackle. 

Let's close this review with Joe's song, "Lyrics to Janis." 

Into my life on waves of electrical sound
And flashing light she came,
Into my life with the twist of a dial
The wave of her hand — the warmth of her smile.
And even though I know that you and I
Could never find the kind of love we wanted together,
Alone I find myself missing you and I, you and I.

It's not very often that something special happens
And you happen to be that something special for me.
And walking on grass where we rolled and laughed in the moonlight
I find myself thinking of you and I, you and I, you.

Into my eye comes visions of patterns
Designs the image of her I see.
Into my mind the smell of her hair,
The sound of her voice — we once were there.

And even though I know that you and I
Could never find the kind of love we wanted together,
Alone, I find myself missing

You and I,
You and I,

Janis sings "Little Girl Blue" on the Tom Jones Show, 1969.