Among the "27 club" biopics--most recently Asif Kapadia's Amy and Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck--a new documentary by Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil and West of Memphis) humanizes one of rock 'n' roll's few female deities. Janis: Little Girl Bluepainstakingly pieces together the life and career of Janis Joplin. Berg breathes new life into Joplin's trajectory, opening the film with one of the singer's last letters to her parents, written just before she turned twenty-seven.
"When you have that big of a presence, you have to be the leader. She had just accomplished that within herself when she wrote that letter," Berg, a self-described "Janis fanatic," tells Out. "She's wrestling with the idea that ambition and love could be aligned. She had just embraced who she was."
The powerhouse performer didn't show insecurities on stage, but Berg frames them as the source of Joplin's music career. Joplin's siblings Laura and Michael recount their sister's formative struggles with acne and fluctuating weight in the small town of Port Arthur, Texas.
Joplin used her political interests to cope. She became a vocal advocate for civil rights in the South, pushing for integration and social equality. These political leanings also contributed to her musical influences. Among her influences, she counts African-American blues singers like Odetta, Bessie Smith, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin.
"On stage, she presents this really loud, powerful, passionate, raw spirit. But then you see the quiet moments where she's still wrestling with her past," Berg explains. " Her therapy was on stage. She's working everything out. Speaking to her audience, she received love for being all the things that she was once laughed at for before."
Interviews with her showbiz confidants, family, and former lovers (Dick Cavett and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead) give testament to her complexity as a musician and as a person with a strong desire for acceptance. Berg says the raw emotion that catapulted Joplin to fame also introduced her to drug addiction, which seems to steer many of the interviews in the documentary.
As Berg explains: "Janis lived big wherever she went. She had one life in Los Angeles, another life in New York, and then the life in Austin, and San Francisco. She would be surrounded by young girls who wanted to be be more like her, and that ultimately drove her more into drugs. She felt like she couldn't live up to the person she was on stage when she was off stage."
Little Girl Blue is overlaid with footage of Joplin's performances from documentaries, including D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop (1968) and Bob Smeaton and Frank Cvitanovich's Festival Express (2003). Joplin's personal letters are the real key to this documentary's success. Berg lets Joplin tell her own story with the help of narrator Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), whom Berg says is a dead-ringer for Joplin.
"Who Chan represents is very in line with Janis," Berg says. "I think that it's very rare for a female artist to speak openly about how they view themselves and their insecurities and their vulnerabilities, and Chan does that."
In her letters to her parents, Joplin expressed her profound ambitions as a musician with the same relatable simplicity that amalgamated Woodstock Festival masses. In one of her letters before she became famous, Marshall reads: "Being a star is really losing its meaning, but whatever 'it' means, I'm ready."
Little Girl Blue, directed and narrated by women, to a large extent politicizes the music industry's conventionally masculine dominance. In the documentary, Joplin is reluctant to call herself a "feminist," given that the feminist movement was critical of her fluid sexuality, but Berg says Joplin still embodied a spirit of strength that aligns with feminism.
"Janis had more than a political voice, because she was connecting with people emotionally," says Berg. "She embodied a feminist spirit by being who she was instead of actually having to preach about feminism. We wouldn't be anywhere if it wasn't for the Naomi Kleins and the Gloria Steinems. But I personally align with just living it and being it. I think in that way Janice had much more power."
Female fans and musicians--including Melissa Etheridge, Juliette Lewis, and Pink--also discuss Joplin's influence on their own careers, and the meaning of her visibility as an exceptional, albeit unconventional female musician.
Four decades after her death, Little Girl Blue offers a nostalgic ode to the late performer, but what's more significant is that Berg's unembellished portrayal makes Joplin accessible and relevant to a new generation of music fans who might not have known the inspiration behind the stylings of their favorite blue-eyed soulful chanteuses.
Little Girl Blue is now screening in New York City and will open in select cinemas this week. Watch the trailer below: