Yes, Janis Joplin made a hell of a record out of Rodgers & Hart's "Little Girl Blue," but you're right if you winced to learn that Amy Berg's new documentary feature about Joplin takes that song as its title — and as its dismal argument and organizing principle. "I want to be happy so fucking bad," Joplin wrote in a letter, and so we hear that here, along with that stunner of a story that in 1962 the frat-house bullies at the University of Texas at Austin voted her the school's "ugliest man."
As the film heaps all its sadnesses on us, the rest of Joplin languishes unexamined. Berg treats her subject's talent and ambition as sui generis, a caterwaul a lonely girl lucked into rather than the art a singer worked at. We catch glimpses of a scrapbook that Joplin kept, and for all its snapshots of rockers and Haight life, what astonishes most is an early news clipping from back home in Port Arthur, Texas: "Library Job Brings Out Teenager's Versatility." Read fast and you can glean its gist -- Joplin, who we're never encouraged to think of as bookish or independently productive, had whipped up impressive posters.
Berg's assemblage of home movies, performance footage, and vintage interviews is marvelous, but there's not an idea in the movie's head except she suffered, she sang, maybe heroin kept the hurt away. Ellen Willis characterized the commonplace shorthand of Joplin as "lusty hedonist and suffering victim." Little Girl Blue reduces even the reduction.