"Beyond all the plaudits, tearful recollections and concert footage Joplin’s innocence infiltrates every frame seamlessly”, says Martin Carr who reviews the poignant, moving documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue.
Whether you like Janis Joplin or not is irrelevant. Take her vocal status, early overdose and musical influence out of the equation for a moment. These elements have been dissected, dismantled and discussed at length by the morbidly curious for decades. What Janis: Little Girl Blue does, and does well, is give us a sense of the isolation, segregation and victimisation which came to define both Joplin and that voice.
I have only written one other review under the same conditions in which Little Girl Blue hits my keyboard; that was Alex Gibney’s Hunter S Thompson documentary Gonzo. Joplin’s debut album Pearl released three months after her death is playing in both ears, whilst I decide what Janis means to me.
Beyond all the plaudits, tearful recollections and concert footage Joplin’s innocence infiltrates every frame seamlessly. That thunderous gospel voice combining nuanced sweetness, high octane screeching and grizzled purity seems almost overwhelming. And at its best Little Girl Blue highlights her fear of fame, stark vulnerability and inability to deal with that God given gift.
Berg documents a time of experimentation both musically and psychotropically in which Joplin was front and centre. A singularly lonely figure embraced by the minority and segregated by everyone else. You sense that Berg is not going for an absolute truth with regards to Joplin, her legacy, or those she leaves behind. These people are never more than honest, heartfelt and strikingly candid in their reminiscences. While there is a refreshing lack of theatrics, hammy anecdotes or veiled axes to grind.
Everyone talks around Joplin, whether that be about the era, how they met or something equally ambiguous. Only Dick Cavett, a former US talk show host, lets his guard down enough to give you an insight into the person. For the young and uninitiated Janis Joplin is a relic. Part of a time before internets, iPhones and broadband which is slowly drifting into obscurity. What upsets me most about this, which may be a symptom of my age, is that everything seems so temporary today. Greatness is defined by page views not books sold, talent is overshadowed by demographic appeal and music in the main is anaemic and sterile as a result.
However none of that matters as Berg sensibly decides to reserve judgement and not preach to an audience unwilling to listen. Joplin is painted as neither a victim of circumstance, upbringing or malicious intent, who burned brightly and left an indelible mark. Her lifestyle is never questioned, her methods and input are as balanced as they can be, while Gibney and Berg avoid using Joplin’s life as cautionary tale, all too aware of the cliché it would become and disapproval it may incur. If anything Berg’s ethos is defined by a John Lennon soundbite during an interview shortly after Joplin’s death with Dick Cavett. Responding to a question on the pressures of living with fame Lennon said, “we can’t live in it without guarding ourselves against it”. Poignant and tragic in its predictive nature, this foresight from beyond the grave stands as testament to what happens when you let that guard down.