Directed by Amy Berg
American filmmaker, Amy Berg, continues to do what she knows best: documentary films. Titles like “Delivers Us From Evil” (an Academy award nominated), “West of Memphis”, “An Open Secret” and “Prophet’s Prey” deserved every accolade they got. In 2014, “Every Secret Thing” probes fiction and mystery with disastrous results. Her new documentary about the iconic singer Janis Joplin, graciously entitled “Janis: Little Girl Blue”, is probably the less riveting but still properly built.
To let us know both the successes and defeats of this incredible talent of the blues-rock-soul scene of 60’s and 70’s, Ms. Berg uses the classical approach, interweaving archival footage, a strong narration by Cat Power, and interviews with many personalities close to Janis. From band mates to producers to former boyfriends and lovers, everyone gives a valuable contribution so we can better understand the sadness behind the contagious energy present in the performances of ‘Pearl’, as she was known among her friends.
After explaining why she likes music so much and how this was the perfect vehicle to express her feelings, we are faced with ugly realities that characterized her youth, especially the traumatic high school days, when angry boys pick on her to win a contest called ‘the ugliest man on Campus’. However, Janis never attempted to change her ways, embracing progressive ideas and a particular way of dressing with bold individuality.
In 1966, she literally fled from her conservative hometown, Port Arthur, Texas, and from her parents, who wanted her to become a teacher, to give wings to a creative freedom when singing in the clubs of San Francisco. There, she formed the successful Big Brother & The Holding Company whose highlight performance was in 67' Monterey Festival. Her popularity turned out to be bigger than expected provoking some adverse reactions in her band mates, Peter Albin and James Gurley. The band didn’t last much longer and Janis, feeling guilty and depressed, started her solo career with a new band, carrying a constant interior conflict that found some delusive ease in alcohol and heroin, a problem that tended to aggravate.
She seemed to have the strength to kick the addiction when she met the love of her life in Brazil. According to her words, David Niehaus made her feel like a woman for the first time, not a pop star. However, he decided to proceed with his scheduled trip to Africa, leaving her in a grievous state that brought back the dependence on drugs.
Janis stepped into the famous Woodstock Festival bearing a visible emotional instability and counting on the support of her new friend and lover, Peggy Caserta, who wasn’t exactly the help she needed to get rid of her obstacles.
“Janis: Little Girl Blue” was competently directed and structured, but I was unable to feel a similar arresting empathy and vibrancy of other recent documentaries about musicians such as “Cobain: Montage of Heck” or “Amy”.