Written and Directed by Amy J. Berg
Janis’s story is told mostly through letters she wrote to family and friends revealed here for the first time. The letters, authentically narrated by Cat Power, together with a series of interviews depict a tortured soul with unflagging determination to become a star. Inevitably, because we all know how the story ends, there’s prevailing sadness throughout. Joplin lived for the stage and for the attention. Away from the stage, she was completely lost, and it’s just so heartbreaking to realize that no one stepped into her life to shield her from the tragic downturn of drugs and alcohol. The interviews with her younger sister and brother as well as close friends and bandmates only add to this pallor.
On the other hand, there are some joyous moments too, because Janis grew up as the underdog, ridiculed and bullied in high school. The first set of letters reveal phrases like “I need love” and “need to be proud of myself.” She eventually found some happiness in San Francisco, and for the most part enjoyed her time with Big Brother & The Holding Company. She found the stardom she was seeking, and was able to effectively achieve some personal revenge after years of doubting her own desirability and never being accepted. High school friend J. Dave Moriarity talks at length about Janis dressing differently, pushing the limits, starting fights and generally being “lots of trouble.” These early parts of Joplin’s growing up are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, as they are less familiar to us. While they also foreshadow the eventual tragedy, the viewer comes to admire Janis’ pioneering spirit. When you think about it, there were not many females fronting bands in those days.
Other noteworthy moments include her arrival in San Francisco’s North Beach section and an exploration into her emulation of blues artists and attribution of her use of drugs and alcohol to emulate their pain. She met Bob Dylan and exclaimed, “I’m gonna be famous someday,” to which Dylan responded, “Yeah, we’re all gonna be famous.” There are some tender letter exchanges with her boyfriend during that period and the struggles of kicking the drug habit. Bob Weir talks about Joplin’s romantic relationship with Pig Pen (Ron McKernan) of The Grateful Dead. D.A. Pennebaker, the filmmaker, points out that Monterey Pop was the big turning point in her career, and accentuates that by showing film of Cass Elliot’s expressions (actually capturing ‘Wow!’) during Joplin’s performance. There are several segments with TV host Dick Cavett, who at one point confesses, “We may or may not have ended up intimate.” Throughout almost all of these segments the prevailing theme, expressed by both the letters and interviews, is – “As long as people gave her the stage, she’d be a winner.”
Scenes from Festival Express and the three different bands she played with are packed with similar acute moments. Kris Kristofferson speaks admirably of Joplin and her ability to make “Me and Bobbie McGhee” her song. Later, Janis had to be dragged onstage at Woodstock because she was ridiculously high on heroin. She began her show with an incoherent babble. You clearly get the sense that her end is near. The last letter shown in the film has this phrase, “I won’t blow it this time.” Her former bandmate in BBHC describes her as “like a little girl lost one moment and as strong as a mountain lion the next.”
Joplin’s emotional honesty, her ability to win many uphill battles, and her underappreciated talent just didn’t enable her to conquer her loneliness. This film is well paced and put together objectively and intimately, finding the right emotional balance. Nonetheless, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of excess. As Joplin sings the film’s final song, “Little Girl Blue,” the viewer is left with gut-wrenching emptiness. Janis wanted to be loved so much.
– Jim Hynes