While comparisons with Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse aren’t easy to ignore – both are tragic and tender tales of women with unforgettable voices who died at the same age – Berg’s Janis is a bit more conventional in approach to Kapadia’s Amy.
Opening with a typically unruly performance from the lady in question, Berg (West of Memphis, Deliver Us From Evil) takes the viewer back to Port Arthur, Texas to explore what kind of childhood Joplin experienced. She finds what you’d expect in such a documentary: younger siblings and high school friends describe an unusual girl, outspoken, bullied at school, stood apart, did things her own way, etc; over the predictable photos of Joplin aged six to sixteen.
It’s when the Joplin up sticks and makes for San Francisco in the early sixties that Berg’s documentary starts to come alive and find its own feet. The total freedom the would-be singer finds soon leads to drug addiction and her friends advise her to return home. A second stab at San Fran, however, leads her to Big Brother and the Holding Company and the rest, as they say, was history…
The backbone of Little Girl Blue is the letters home to her parents, narrated by Cat Power, and their humble tone are totally at odds with the confident woman thrashing about on stage. They portray Janis as almost childlike, still looking to her mother and father for acceptance. Sweet and touching, this this insecure yearning to for approval doesn’t change despite her growing fame. There’s also the great loves in her life, some who helped her kick the heroin, and the nasty breakups that make their way to on-stage live confessionals and help feed into those heart-on-sleeve performances. As she says at one point, “Jesus f**cking Christ, I wanna be happy so f**cking bad.” Little Girl Blue indeed.
Berg unearths a sea of photos, TV interviews (some with Dick Cavett, who is also interviewed here and more than hints that he and Joplin were lovers), Monterey Pop Festival footage (Mama Cass in awe in the front row), Woodstock, on tour, and what D.A. Pennebaker’s camera picked up during the recording of Cheap Thrills. Over all the discussions and opinions and images are Janis’s yelps and screams.