'Janis: Little Girl Blue': Inside the New Joplin Doc

How Amy Berg got singer's friends, family and forgotten lovers to open up about the legendary Sixties blues singer

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Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin, on the cover of her posthumously released 1971 album 'Pearl.' New documentary 'Janis: Little Girl Blue' delves into the life and times of the late, great singer. BFI London Film Festival/Image.net

This fall marks the 45th anniversary of Janis Joplin's death from an overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. Since then, she's been the subject of books, reissues, a boxed set, an off-Broadway show, and a still-in-development biopic, possibly starring Amy Adams. Everyone from Kim Gordon to Pink has given Joplin props for paving the way as a woman in a male-dominated rock climate, and the singer's raw delivery continues to resonate. "Even when I was 10 or 12 years old and first heard her sing," recalls Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, "you knew she was feeling what she was singing. And I knew she was funny, because every picture I'd seen of her growing up, she was always laughing, like she was having a good life."

In all those years, Joplin has only been the subject of one documentary, 1974's Janis. That changes on Novenber 27th, however, with Janis: Little Girl Blue, filmmaker Amy Berg's look at the driven but vulnerable woman who packed more adventures into her 27 years than many musicians do in a lifetime.

Those who remember the long-out-of-circulation Janis may recognize some of the clips in Berg's movie, including director D.A. Pennebaker's footage of the recording sessions for Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills and clips of Joplin attending her high school reunion in Texas. Unlike the earlier doc, though, Little Girl Blue (produced by another noted documentarian, Alex Gibney) includes newly conducted interviews. Seen and heard in the movie are Joplin's family (including her siblings Laura and Michael, who oversees Joplin's estate), members of Big Brother (including guitarist Sam Andrew, who died earlier this year), the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, and close friends like Country Joe McDonald and Dick Cavett.

One genuine treat: an outtake from Festival Express, the documentary about the 1970 train-ride tour that featured Joplin, the Dead, the Band, and other musicians playing and partying across Canada. In the outtake, Joplin is seen singing and strumming "Me and Bobby McGee" with Jerry Garcia accompanying her on guitar — several months before Joplin recorded the song for her posthumously released Pearl.

For Berg, who's directed acclaimed docs like Deliver Us From Evil and West of Memphis, Janis: Little Girl Blue was a labor of love dating back to 2007, when she first met with Joplin's estate to discuss a documentary. Even though it would take another eight years  (and $1.5 million) for the film to come to fruition, Joplin's impact didn't diminish with time. "When I talked to Pink and Melissa Etheridge for the movie, I saw this theme of Janis starting their careers for them," Berg says. "Her existence gave them the courage to do what they wanted to do. In the Sixties, women were expected be mothers and secretaries — and Janis wanted to be more."

Over the course of her research, Berg met and interviewed Cavett, who implies he and Joplin were closer than their roles as talk show host and guest would imply, as well as some of Joplin's never-before-seen male and female lovers. "She mostly preferred men," Berg says. "But when she got really close to somebody, she was fine with that. She was just looking for love. She wanted to be adored and comforted and loved." After a year and a half of searching, Berg tracked down David Niehaus, who met and fell in love with Joplin not long before her death. A loving letter from Niehaus was awaiting the musician at the front desk of her hotel on the night she died. "The question is, had she received that letter that night, maybe she wouldn't have shot up," Berg says. "That was so tragic."

In the process of learning about Joplin's death, Berg also heard — and discounted — some of its attendant conspiracy theories, like stories of "two Mafia guys" seen leaving Joplin's room with suitcase that night. "It was all, 'Well, I heard they were trying to kill all the counterculture musicians and that's how they did it,'" Berg says, shaking her head. "We looked into all of them. Just crazy conspiracy theories."

Threaded throughout Blue are Joplin's letters to her family, written right up until just before her passing. Berg was not only able to get permission to use some of them in the film but also hired Marshall to read them. "I was listening to an interview with Chan and I couldn't believe how much she sounded like Janis," Berg says. "It blew me away. I knew the minute I heard her speak that she was the person. Her personality is so sweet and vulnerable, and she understands what Janis was going through. She got it so quickly."

To her surprise, Marshall, who knew little of the intimate details of Joplin's life, found many parallels: "being southern, hanging out with a bunch of dudes, and feeling she was in an era where she was like the only rock & roll chick. It was like that for me in the Nineties — alone with a guitar, a female touring the world all those years. I saw right away when I was being treated in that way. I can't imagine the social pressures Janis felt."

For Marshall, reading Joplin's correspondence was especially cathartic. "I moved to New York when I was 20, so I saw things in her letters about wanting that acceptance and validation from your family," she says. "I've written letters like, 'I was on tour with Sonic Youth and they like me!' I saw the parallels. I kept wanting to kill myself in my twenties. To read out loud her having to apologize to her family for wanting to be herself was like slapping me in the face. When I was reading her last letter, I had to whisper it because the first three times I tried to do it, I was bawling and crying. It was intense."

"She was ahead of her time as a woman in a man's world," Berg says. "It's still a battle to do what you want to do, have a family, make people happy and not be judged. She was constantly worried about messing up. I saw this vulnerable young woman who was just trying to find herself. Women in the entertainment business are taking charge of their lives. But we're still fighting for a lot of the same things."

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