The concert segments of Amy J. Berg’s livewire documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue should amaze and surprise music fans who think they already know about the late Janis Joplin aka “Pearl,” as well as newcomers to the mystique. The filmed performances of “Women Is Losers,” “Cry Baby,” “Summertime,” and “Me and Bobby McGee” are standouts, but that’s only half the story behind the high-school outcast from Port Arthur, Texas who took hippie-fied San Francisco by storm by channeling Bessie Smith.
Like most other members of the “27 Club,” Joplin had issues. Snubbed as a teenager, picked on by angry men (“She was dangerous to take to a bar,” remembers one friend from her hootenanny days in Austin), emotionally needy, and later, all too eager to sample the ubiquitous crank, smack, and acid that was always available backstage, Joplin “could feel everybody’s pain.” All that apprehensiveness vanished once she got up in front of her band. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made her famous but she burned out early. “You can’t imagine how hard it is to be me,” she pleaded.
Cinema verité master D.A. Pennebaker was so thrilled with the Joplin/Big Brother footage he shot in Monterey, he followed her to a recording date in 1968 — some of the film’s best moments. Talk show host Dick Cavett admits/brags that he was more than just friends with her. Filmmaker Berg (West of Memphis) has a vested interest in chronicles of misunderstood young people. Every step of Joplin’s journey is tinged with underlying regret. As noted, her emotional honesty tended to give way to caricature. But when she settled into a blues the world ate out of her hand. Don’t believe it? Go see Janis.