Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue subtly brings Janis Joplin back to life, allowing the viewer to vicariously engage with her as a human being first and a legendary voice in American music second. This is a significant accomplishment, as most biographic documentaries emphasize their subjects’ iconography at the price of distancing them from the audience, corralling them retrospectively into a pat bracket reserved for Great People.
Berg juxtaposes photographs of Joplin as a Texan teenager in the early 1960s with letters she wrote to her loved ones, revealing her to be a prototypically tortured outsider who danced to her own metaphorical beat. Joplin received mediocre grades, and was threatened by her peers for her appearance and, particularly, for her early, daring support of racial integration. Joplin’s parents, who appeared to be cut from traditionally conservative working-class cloth, tried to be supportive of her despite their poignant befuddlement with their daughter. They knew they were dealing with an odd duck, one who was probably destined either for greatness or annihilation.
Of course, time revealed both fates to be awaiting Joplin, and Berg astutely underplays the doomed inevitability of her subject’s narrative. Resonances quietly announce themselves. Joplin liked to pick fights in Texan juke joints, and had an early and prodigious penchant for booze that would eventually blossom into a widely documented heroin addiction. Early relationships with women gave way to a life almost entirely co-inhabited with men, which ironically earned Joplin the ire of various feminist groups despite her embrace of a professionally and sexually fluid, unbridled, glass-ceiling-shattering existence that would seem to embody most of what feminism is theoretically fighting to achieve.
Berg tracks Joplin’s rise from a confused teenager to a pivotal musician in an American countercultural movement that would climax with Woodstock, always taking close measure of the artist’s lonely eyes. Berg shows us something that’s hiding in plain sight within a legend. When most of us consider Joplin, we probably think of “Piece of My Heart,” or of her electrifying cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” or of her status as one of the golden embodiments of the rock star as contemporary Icarus. Berg foregrounds the price paid for that legacy, which is a traditional price of isolation that the art itself is meant to correct. Berg reminds us that all art begins as a gesture of atonement or self-compensation.
Berg grounds us so effectively in Joplin’s emotional realm as to partially rekindle the social transcendence that her voice must have represented for its owner, and for those lucky enough to have seen her live shows. This context informs footage of Joplin playing “Ball and Chain” at Monterey Pop with a newfound sense of dramatic catharsis; the audience is able to regard a butterfly as it briefly emerges from its chrysalis. Another remarkable moment fuses audio interviews with members of Joplin’s most significant band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, with footage of drug-fueled party-going to create a vivid impression of the singer accidentally consuming acid-laced wine during one of her attempts to stay off hard drugs.
Interviews with a lover that Joplin met in Brazil gradually lend Little Girl Blue the heft of a significant pop-cultural tragedy. The film earns the poetry of its subtitle (which comes from a wonderful Joplin song), as it’s about an artist whose brilliance was born from her own pathological inability to discern it. Joplin’s inferiority complex is most hauntingly encapsulated by a letter she wrote to her parents not long before her fatal heroin overdose: “Please believe that you can’t possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do.”