What would it take to raise a real sense of sorrow over the loss of someone who died nearly a half-century ago, even someone as iconic as Janis Joplin?
Time heals all wounds, the wisdom goes, but there’s a fresh melancholy that comes from watching Janis: Little Girl Blue. The film kicked off this year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival last night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Archival footage, new interviews and a narrative built from Joplin’s letters home, as read by Chan Marshall — better known as Cat Power — were meant to be a music film instead of a biopic, according to filmmaker Amy Berg, who was on hand for the screening.
The good news is that the movie is both. Berg’s work includes the impactful documentaries Deliver Us From Evil and West of Memphis. And the reason her foray into this territory works so well is her dogged insistence to focus on Joplin’s life rather than her death.
“I love her and I really connected with her over seven or eight years," she said. "I wanted to protect her from all that ugly stuff that happens to women when they overdose. We look at men so differently than women in that situation.
"We put men on a pedestal for their — I’m sorry, there are so many men in the room,” Berg told the sold-out house, to peals of laughter, after the viewing. “I’m just saying we put them on a pedestal for how they played guitar or what songs they wrote or who they were as artists. I just think that Janis and Amy Winehouse and all these 27 year old beauties that died tragically are remembered for how they died.”
Berg made it her mission to change that, and the result is a remarkable insider’s view of the woman who became the rock star. Her insecurities, disappointments and triumphs are the stuff of rock legend, but hearing Joplin discuss those matters in her own words brings us closer to the person than the rock goddess. There were moments of levity, courtesy of Joplin insiders like Dick Cavett and Bob Weir and, more than anyone, Joplin herself. The poignant ending kept the crowd rapt.
There were some revelations. It’s well-known that Joplin’s hippie lifestyle was at odds with the conservatism of her Port Arthur upbringing. But it still was a shock to hear her sister say on film that one of rock’s most influential voices was seen as "a calamity" by her parents. It was weird to hear Joplin say, via vintage footage, that she was surprised to find that she could sing at all.
Following the screening, Berg shared some thoughts in a session moderated by Bun B. With a wealth of resources at her disposal, he wanted to know how she decided on what to use for the movie.
“There was a two hour, 45 [minute] cut and I was sold that it had to be that long," Berg said. "There’s so much to her. But then the letters gave me such a nice narrative to follow that I just started pulling things back. It turned out that the simpler the story the better it was because I wanted this to be a music film. I didn’t want it to be a biography. I think Janis tells you so much more in her performances and her letters.”
Bun asked about Berg’s inspired choice to cast Marshall as Janis’s voice.
“I love Cat Power,” said Berg, who admitted her own first love was music. “I’d listened to so many different actors, we’d get lists from agencies and singers and people did readings that just had an agenda to it. But she was just Janis to me. I actually played the film for her band a month and a half ago and they told me that they forgot it wasn’t Janis, which is a huge compliment since they spend so much time together. She’s really great and she understands Janis’s issues.”
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Those issues were unique to Joplin. As the first true female rock and roll star, she had no female mentor to turn to for advice or kinship.
“Dave Dalton from Rolling Stone described backstage really well for me. He said after the show all the guys in the band would be flirting with all these young groupies and Janis was surrounded by women. And she’s like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on?’ They all wanted to tell their problems to Janis and try to take something from her and she just wanted to be attractive to some…what she used to call ‘the local talent.’ She just wanted to find a guy and escape and instead she was in that situation. Maybe drugs were a buffer for her, I guess.”
Berg’s enthusiasm about the movie brought us out of our funk, a sadness she put there by creating a stronger bond between the audience and Joplin. She was funny and open and said it took years to be there with us, watching the film. She had to find financing at times or secure music rights or obtain the right to use the letters or just get everyone, including Joplin’s estate, on the same page. The page, as Berg saw it, was getting viewers to see her subject as more than “drinking Southern Comfort and overdosing on heroin.” Janis: Little Girl Blue does just that.
“I think she struggled with a lot of things that women struggle with today, but she didn’t have any peers to talk about it with,” Berg said. “She was just trying to figure things out.”