So many documentaries about iconic musicians who died too young aim to do one thing: reel these musical behemoths in from the heavens and portray them as just like the rest of the general populace, to sift through their triumphant, often euphoric, but short lives in order to collect the foibles, doubts and anxieties that plague us all, and blend them with the sounds that changed the world. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse have all had documentaries made in recent years that have followed this pattern, and not only does this allow us to connect with these (previously) mythical beings on a human level but the mixture of ‘heaven and earth’ also makes for a compelling story and, in the case of director Amy Berg’s films, a tragic one too.
Janis Joplin is considered to be a member of the “27 Club”, a morbid name for a group of musicians who have all died at the same age. Janis may not be as well known as some club members (which includes the aforementioned Hendrix and Cobain as well as the ultra-photogenic Jim Morrison) but back in the seventies she epitomised the free-love zeitgeist, became a poster girl for era of sexual liberation despite the fact she was voted “Ugliest Man on Campus” as a teenager. However, like so many young talents pinned to the wall for the world to adore, her instability and desperate need for validation ultimately drove her towards drugs, drink and, finally, a lonely motel room death. Berg in a very similar vein to Asif Kapadia’s film Amy, attempts to unpack this tumultuous life.
This film is all about the inherent human need for acceptance. Told, via talking heads and through the letters that Janis sent to her family during her travels across America, with a neatness that never feels overly sympathetic or melodramatic but touches upon all of her childhood adversities, Berg is not subtle in the story she attempts to tell, and the bias of linking the bullying that Janis’ suffered as a teenager to her ultimate descent into depression shows through a little too blatantly. Nevertheless, whenever Janis performs, channeling that distinct, sublime voice and exuding charisma, you can’t help but feel that the stage was her escape into happiness. Berg often lets the archive footage linger a little longer on Janis during these performances so we can simultaneously feel her joy at being embraced by an audience and her despondency that it all has to end someday.
Despite the heavy and intriguing subject, Berg knows she cannot rest on Janis to drive this film forward and employs a few skilful stylistic measures to emphasise her complexity. Bringing Chan Marshall, otherwise known as Cat Power, into the fold and having her be the voice that reads out Janis’ letters was a masterstroke as she does not provide an imitation but still manages to capture her raspy, lazy southern drawl, an intonation that, coupled with the hazy, sedated home-video footage, paints her spiritual and physical journey across America like a Kerouac novel in slow motion. The scrapbook effect feels too trite to be anything other than a stubborn instinct to stick to formula but the various montage sequences that Berg splices together are so well-trimmed and edited that it makes for a seamless tale that could outpace any of the reported biopics that have been in the pipeline for years. Zooey Deschanel as our Janis seems a bit too Hollywood, no?
Janis: Little Girl Blue is at its best when it hits those expressive beats. From the first shot of the film, a wild haired, wailing woman snapping her head back as if in the throes of ecstasy, we know this ride is going to be a difficult one and the various talking heads only compound this. There is too much impulse and spontaneity to keep Janis tethered but Berg does her utmost to help us connect with both this “femme sauvage” and the poor, chastised youth that she evolved from, possibly holding our hand a little too tightly. Exploring her background will profoundly affect the way that you listen to her music and for this, Berg’s film is to be commended. As a documentary it is nothing too special but as a eulogy, it is note perfect.
Janis: Little Girl Blue will be released on DVD and VOD on the 9th May 2016.