By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2015)
I met a girl who sang the blues And I asked her for some happy news But she just smiled and turned away…
-from “American Pie”, by Don McLean
“I got treated very badly in Texas.”
-Janis Joplin, on her formative years
Let’s face it. We’ve all been bullied at some point in time (ah…school days!). And we know how humiliated and debased it makes you feel. Thankfully, most people are able to take the philosophical road; dust themselves off, get over it, and move on with their lives. Besides, as Michael Stipe posited: “everybody hurts,” right? Welcome to the human race.
But there are some more sensitive souls who never quite recover from such trauma. At best, they trudge through the rest of their lives plagued with doubts, anxieties, and low self-esteem. At worst, they meltdown at some point and go on a tri-county shooting spree. Happily, there is a middle ground; particularly for those with a creative bent. They tend to gravitate toward the performing arts…becoming comedians, actors, and musicians. That’s because, when you’re on stage (and I speak from personal experience) there’s nothing more redeeming than the sound of applause. And when you’re having a really good night, truly connecting with an audience and “feeling the love”? It’s better than sex.
Of course, the downside is that those moments are ephemeral; you can’t be “on stage” 24/7. As soon as you come down from that high in the spotlight, you’re back to your life…and all those doubts, anxieties and feelings of low self-esteem creep back in. For such souls, that love and adulation acts as a powerful opiate; and when they’re not getting their fix, they scrabble for proxies, and (as Joni Mitchell sings in “Coyote”) “…take their temporary lovers…and their pills and powders, to get them through this passion play.”
“On stage, I make love to twenty-five thousand people; and then I go home alone.”
In Amy Berg’s new documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, we see a fair amount of “Janis Joplin”, the confident and powerful cosmic blues-rocker; but the primary focus of the film is one Janis Lyn Joplin, the vulnerable and insecure “little girl blue” from Port Arthur, Texas who lived inside her right up until her untimely overdose at age 27 in 1970.
“She” is revealed via excerpts drawn from an apparent treasure trove of private letters, confided in ingratiating fashion by whisky-voiced narrator Chan Marshall (aka “Cat Power”). This is what separates Berg’s film from Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary Janis, which leaned exclusively on archival interviews and performance footage. Berg mines clips from the same vaults, but renders a more intimate portrait, augmented by present-day insights from Joplin’s siblings, close friends, fellow musicians and significant others.
You get a sense of the Janis who never fully healed from the psychic damage incurred from the mean-spirited ridicule she weathered growing up in a small (-minded) Texas burg; shamed for her physicality, unconventional fashion sense, and for harboring aspirations that were atypical from “other chicks”. She once said, “I always wanted to be an ‘artist’, whatever that was, like other chicks want to be stewardesses. I read. I painted. I thought.” We see how she made her breakthrough and found her own “voice” by channeling the soulful essence of her idols Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Odetta and Aretha.
Despite undercurrents of melancholy and genuine sadness, and considering that we know going in that it is not going to have a Hollywood ending, the film is surprisingly upbeat. Joplin’s intelligence, sense of humor and joie de vivre shine through as well, and Berg celebrates her legacy of empowerment for a generation of female musicians who followed in her wake. On one long dark night of her soul, that “ball and chain” finally got too heavy to manage, but not before she was able to wield it to knock down a few doors.