Ever since Amy, the staggeringly intimate documentary about Amy Winehouse, was released last year, it seems like the time is ripe for digging into the life of yet another music icon gone too soon at the age of 27. Janis Joplin, like Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, all went out at that age like a curse, but the fascination with their lives and exciting body of work continues. Janis: Little Girl Blue is all about Joplin from beginning to end, but, to its credit, doesn’t add any theories about the “27” connection, nor does it mention current rock stars or the impact of Joplin’s vocal style on the future of music. (In other words, no soundbites from academics.) Instead, it’s more like an effort to recreate the life of a lonely young woman at the height of her fame, through the eyes of the people she left behind and her own words.
According to Joplin, her singing ability was “a surprise” in her late teens, and it’s almost like she was under its spell, following its lead. From her awkward high school days as an outsider to Woodstock powerhouse performances of “Piece of my Heart,” she was really singing about a force inside her that she didn’t quite understand or know how to deal with in relation to other people, or their opinion of who she should be. Cat Power, who reads from Joplin’s letters in a warm bluesy tone, is a great choice by director Amy Berg, to underscore a hidden sadness not readily apparent in early photographs and Super 8 film.
Inevitably, Joplin’s drug use is touched on throughout the doc, and it features as mostly a sign of the times, a means of escaping her Texas roots to drift in San Francisco, only to be hauled back on a bus after she became hopelessly addicted to methamphetamine. It didn’t help that her boyfriend at the time got another woman pregnant and… the rest is history. For Joplin, it was a series of broken relationships and “going home after a gig alone.” It’s hard not to be moved when her last and possibly truest love appears, alone on a park bench circa 2014, and explains how he wasn’t there for her on the night she overdosed on heroin more than 40 years ago. He’d left her a message with the hotel front desk, but she’d asked not to be disturbed. With that, it becomes subtly clear that every image of Joplin stops after 1970.
Countless interviews with bandmates, siblings, lovers, even Dick Cavett, the talk show host, reveal a lot, especially how vivid some things remain in the heart and mind despite the ravages of aging. Joplin’s life becomes fresh again in Little Girl Blue, because it presents major milestones like prophetic snippets of memory: how the artist herself may have experienced them, and how she’ll never have a chance to outgrow them.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is playing at Cinema du Parc until June 16th.