New Joplin & Winter Docs Add to Golden Triangle's Rich Musical Legacy

Two titans of ’60s blues-rock, Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, shared some of the same backgrounds, influences and experiences. The pair were even occasional lovers and drug buddies, culminating in the story where a smacked-out Winter puked into Joplin’s lap in a helicopter ferrying them away from the site of the Woodstock festival. By Winter’s recollection, rather than get upset, Joplin just stroked his hair and told him everything would be all right.

Interviewer: Why do you sing?
Joplin: I get to experience a lot of feelings. It’s really a lot of fun and you get to feel all kinds of things you can’t find if you went to parties all year round and made it with everyone you ever wanted to.

With Janis: Little Girl Blue (108 mins., $19.95, MVD Visual), writer/director Amy Berg finally, finally delivers the documentary that Joplin has so long deserved. It is unflinching in retelling all the highs and lows (and there were plenty of lows) in her brief 27 years.

In the doc, Berg uses a variety of storytelling techniques to great effect: video footage both well-known and rarely seen, childhood and pre-fame pictures of Janis and her drawings, and even report cards (she made four Cs and one B in seventh grade).

There are also insightful and deep, recently shot talking-head interviews with former band mates, lovers, record company liaisons and old friends.

A surprising-but-not-really number across the board are now fragile, gray-haired men in their ‘70s. Bob Weir, Kris Kristofferson, the impeccably dressed Clive Davis and talk-show host Dick Cavett (who coyly alludes to their physical romance) are among the bigger names, along with most of Joplin's first group, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Berg also smartly has musician Cat Power read many of the incredibly honest and open letters that Joplin wrote back home to her parents and siblings in Port Arthur as her career progressed. And while they also formed the basis of the stage play Love, Janis, they are crucial in giving the subject here her own voice, along with interviews from the period.

Humorously, one can imagine her conservative and straitlaced parents reading her (sanitized) adventures around clubs like the Fillmore and The Avalon and friends like “Country Joe” and “The Grateful Dead.”

In addition to her music, the documentary takes even greater pains to try to get to the “real” Janis Joplin – as opposed to the booze-swilling, smack-injecting, always-up-for-a-party, loud-blues mama she’d often play as a defense mechanism. And in that, the viewer finds a woman who craves acceptance. And if she didn’t get it on their terms, she’d get it on hers.

One of the most heartbreaking segments is still the familiar footage of when a crew followed Joplin (and an entourage) to her high school’s ten-year reunion. Awash in feathers and sunglasses and hippie clothes, she is immediately at visual odds with her mostly conservative-looking classmates, who seem to find disdain in both their most famous classmate and the attention she draws.

So even at the height of her worldwide fame, Joplin felt alone. Asked by a reporter what she misses most about Port Arthur, Joplin offers a terse “no comment” before adding of her classmates, sadly, “I felt apart from them.”

But even a late attempt to finally get clean of heroin and connect with a new boyfriend couldn’t stop the train of self-destruction, as she relapsed and died of an overdose. In Janis: Little Girl Blue, we have one of the finest rock docs of recent memory.

Drugs, of course, also held a grip on Beaumont-raised blues singer/guitarist Johnny Winter, and for decades. For those who want a cradle-to-grave treatment of him (with emphasis on the last few years of his life), there’s the doc Down and Dirty, now available on DVD.

But for a glimpse of his more prime performing years, there's Johnny Winter with Dr. John: Live in Sweden (59 mins., $19.95, MVD Visual, CD also available). The seven-song set, filmed for Swedish television, finds Winter, bass/harmonica player Jon Paris (wearing a T-shirt from Austin club Antone’s) and drummer Tom Compton bringing the heaviness to Lee Baker Jr.’s “Don’t Take Advantage of Me.”

N’awlins pianist/singer Dr. John joins them for tunes including Muddy Waters’s “Sugar Sweet” and a fiery jam on the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” where Winter and Paris momentarily and seamlessly play half their instruments and half the other’s in a neat trick.

It’s a release for hardcore Winter/Dr. John fans only – and includes a brief snippet of a poorly shot music video for Johnny Winter And’s 1972 “Prodigal Song” as a bonus. Still, when Winter is asked by an interviewer the deathless question about what blues music is, he answers with surprising affirmation.

“It makes me feel good…I can’t imagine anybody listening to blues and getting depressed by it. The whole reason for listening to it is that it makes you feel better…not worse!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero