This year has been an incredibly interesting year for documentaries about women in music. First came Asif Kapadia‘s electric doc Amy about Amy Winehouse now we have Amy Berg‘s equally incredible doc Janis: Little Girl Blue. There is more in common between these two women than might meet the eye and they are really good companion pieces. Berg‘s cinematic territory for most of her career has focused on some pretty heavy shit – child molesting priests, innocent kids accused of horrific murder, mind-controlling polygamist church leaders and sex crimes perpetuated on children in Hollywood. While Janis Joplin‘s story has a fair amount of tough details, this film is something that many of her others are not, and frankly they couldn’t be because of the subject matter – celebratory. This is a film that, despite the shitty elements of her life, celebrates the legacy left behind by an incredibly dynamic woman and performer, one the represented the time in which she lived as well as any.
What Berg gives us is a fairly conventional documentary, flush with testimonials from the people that knew Joplin from her early days in Texas spanning to her time in San Francisco to her eventual blossoming into the female powerhouse voice of a generation. Her trials and tribulations as a young girl looking for that one thing that could make her stand out and get her out of small-town Texas on to something bigger occupy a great deal of this film, although Berg doesn’t skimp on the details when she began to hit it big, first with Big Brother and Holding Company and then when she went solo. And what we see is the incredibly vulnerable young woman who even at the height of her fame doubted whether she was worthy of it all. She sought refuge with different men, but also with illicit drugs and especially booze. The film builds to the inevitable end of Joplin‘s death at 27 (like so many incredible musicians of her own time, but incidentally the same as Winehouse).
Berg draws so perfectly from home video and archival interview footage to help Joplin speak for herself throughout the film. What may well be the truest stroke of genius in the film, though, is that Berg slowly but surely removes the talking head interviews throughout the film until we are left with just people speaking in voiceover, if any at all, with footage of Janis. Ultimately, Berg lets the footage act as Janis’ voice and this really captures the essence of what I expect she was all about. While I’ve stated that this is fairly conventional documentary with a linear telling of Joplin‘s tale, that doesn’t make it any less impactful. Another deft move was having Chan Marshall aka Cat Power narrate the film. Her voice is strikingly similar to Joplin‘s, and at times in the film, I couldn’t tell whether it was Marshall or Joplin speaking.
My mother idolized Joplin and growing up, I learned what a powerhouse she was through her voice and her music. I honestly didn’t know much about her outside of that. Perhaps that’s how Janis would have wanted it, to let her music speak for her. Berg has put together a touching portrait that fills in the void that I, and many others, likely had in Joplin‘s story. This film in quite engaging and I think that it does Joplin justice. It stresses her importance to the music scene of the 60s and her lasting influence well beyond. I would be wholeheartedly surprised if this film doesn’t at least make the shortlist for the Oscars and I could certainly see it end up with a nomination. It’s that damn good.
This film hits theaters in New York today and premieres in LA on December 4. If you love music and the legacy left by one of the greats, you’ll run and see this one.
Get there, people.