Watch the Tunes: Janis: Little Girl Blue

On June 24, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Janis: Little Girl Blue, which is streaming over on Netflix.

Like many of you out there I spent a good chunk of last week glued to ESPN’s masterful five part documentary O.J.: Made in America and found myself somehow still shocked at how much of the narrative around him was new and affecting to me. I’m old enough to have watched the slow-mo Bronco chase while it happened, and I clearly remember a middle school social studies class coming to a standstill while we watched the verdict come in live. I thought I had a lot of the nooks and crannies of the case and eventual fallout down thanks simply to cultural osmosis, but I was thrown by how little it turns out I actually knew and how all that accumulated knowledge and context felt like a punch to the gut. I unexpectedly stumbled into the same feeling by the time the credits rolled on Amy J. Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue, part of PBS’s American Masters series. You think you know Janis? Think again... and it just might take a little piece of your heart.

 


I don’t think I’m speaking out of school if I come right out and say that Janis’s bluesy twist on rock and soul music hasn’t aged as well as some of her contemporaries, and Janis: Little Girl Blue doesn’t go out of its way to make any grand arguments for a reassessment of her career. Instead, Amy J. Berg focuses instead on getting to the real meat of the woman who was on stage belting out “dem ol’ kozmic blues” night in and night out. The angle here that puts it a cut above any other docs on Janis is access to personal correspondences between Janis and her family and friends. The camera scans over her lovely handwriting often, while Cat Power plays the part of their author in a way that unshakeably feels like you’re watching a Ken Burns documentary. On top of that, you get the requisite reels of never before seen footage and loads of family photos from her childhood in Port Arthur, Texas.

My personal recollection of Janis was that she was a feminist icon, in charge of her sexuality in a time when the music industry was so bro’d out that even the supposed free-love hippies in The Haight were stubbornly patriarchal. When asked by a reporter why she doesn’t have women in her band she says “I don’t want any chicks on the road with me... I’ve got enough competition.” She represented herself as a brash and ballsy broad who could drink you under that table but, in truth, she was much more insecure than quotes like that would lead you to believe. She was bullied for her acne and mannish looks all through her childhood on up to the ultimate insult: a fraternity voting her "Ugliest Man on Campus” during the short time the studied art at the University of Texas at Austin. Shit like that sticks with you and a childhood friend describes her reaction as being “devastated”. It wasn’t long until she packed up the autoharp and headed to San Francisco where she found her home as a member of the Grateful Dead’s entourage.

The whole arc of Joplin’s woefully short career is contained within Little Girl Blue, including the creation and eventual fracturing of Big Brother & The Holding Co., her solo career, and those transcendent spots at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, but the real reason to toss this on your watchlist is to get a sense of how tragically sad her life was off stage and how far those roots go back to where she came from. Fame and fortune can’t protect you from people who called you names when you were a kid, and the film comes to an emotional head when Janis returns home for her ten-year high school reunion. Decked out in crazy-colored boas and beads as if to say “Ha! Fuck all y’all I’m famous!”she gets the wind knocked out of her when a reporter asks her about having gone to prom, to which she answers "Uh, I didn't go to the high school prom." His incredibly awkward followup question "You were asked, weren't you?" (c’mon, dude) elicits a sheepish "No, I wasn't." It’s not intended as some kind of gotcha journalism on his part, but you can practically see in that moment where Janis realizes that she’s far from free of her Port Arthur, Texas baggage.

Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose at the age of twenty seven, alone in a hotel room. When asked by her friend Dick Cavett, some time before she met her end, if she was still doing heroin, she had answered him “Who would care?" needless to say, Little Girl Blue is a heavier film than I expected, but it earns all the heartache it creates and never crosses into the melodramatic. If you’re at all curious about the woman behind radio staples like “Piece of My Heart”, “Me And Bobby McGee”, or “Mercedes Benz,” I can’t think of a better intro for into what made her tick, however truly unhappy it truly was.

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