Review: Janis: Little Girl Blue
Director: Amy Berg
By Mae Anthony
“I think documentaries are the greatest way to educate an entire generation that doesn’t often look back to learn anything about the history that provided a safe haven for so many of us today.” – Steven Spielberg
This statement could not be more true of Janis: Little Girl Blue, a 2015 documentary that tells the calamitous story of 60s blues-rock goddess Janis Joplin – the woman who rattled the male-dominated music industry, and changed the presence of women in music forever. It was conceived and directed by Amy Berg, who is best known for her Academy Award nominated documentary Deliver Us From Evil based on sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church – only significant due to the fact that she simply gets to the heart of things. She has positioned us to consider the trepidations of a woman who is now considered so inconceivably unhinged due to the folkloric haze of heroin and alcohol abuse that plagued her short musical career, and led to her premature death in 1970.
This documentary tells us Janis’ story: a little girl growing up in Port Arthur Texas, battling the rigid, and unforgiving, conventional beauty standards of the sixties, through to her move to San Francisco where she hit the big time, and beyond. Artefacts from her personal history, such as photographs and various documents, establish Janis’ character before she started singing, to much disbelief, at age 17. Key musicians and family members were interviewed to help not only carry the progression of her story, but create impressions on her experiences; it was through this that I discovered the pain in which Janis suffered.
The truth is anyone could have delivered this inherently sad story of a woman who was so brutally rejected by people, and yet so unique and emotional in nature. It was what made her brilliant, and although this isn’t something that you can’t hear from the way she sings, but the unique touch of Berg’s conception was what carried this documentary and made it poignant and strangely pleasurably to watch. The use of narration of the letters – so superbly executed by musician Cat Power (Charlyn Marshall) – that Janis wrote and sent to family, various friends, and lovers throughout her life was perfectly calculated with the footage of Janis singing and performing, being interviewed after shows, and during televised interviews. The letters were enlightened by the perspectives of the people who knew her well, and could explain what the camera never saw and what Janis isn’t here to tell us today.
It was interesting to see Janis portrayed in the tragic light that she, so convincingly on camera, lived. For hundreds of years, the great innovations of women in musical societies has been pushed aside and buried deep in the ground. It’s mind-spinning to think of the mountainous pile of women’s creations that have been suppressed and suffocated throughout history; Janis gave a voice to women in Rock and Roll, not as a songwriter, or an off-chance whim, but as a woman who stole the hearts of everyone she sang for, and received adoration purely for what she was: one of the world’s greatest singers and performers. And not for anything irrelevant like how she looked or behaved. She led the way for people like Carole King, who then made the prevalent mark in music that she did throughout the 70s, and still does to this day. Every contemporary-rock female music artist since, in a seemingly-melodramatic sense, owes their career to the legacy of Janis Joplin. Sceptical? You only need to this movie to know why.
You can see a final screening of Janis: Little Girl Blue at Luna Leederville on Friday July 15.