By: 3-Deep –
Admittedly, I never knew much about Janis Joplin. And I suppose that’s only appropriate, for the 27-year-old powerhouse singer — as elusive and resplendent as ’70s musicians came — was a mystique force entirely her own. She was considered a revolutionary, and for good reason. Every song she sang was equivocated to sex. Her voice earned her comparisons to Aretha Franklin. And she ate each and every one of them up with room for seconds.
She was a goddess of the blues. And, of course, a lost soul we only had on loan, for Joplin was a very deeply troubled individual, one that couldn’t escape years of ridicule, misunderstanding and pain — no matter how much fame and happiness she found in her new life. She was ultimately someone who deeply needed love and approval, even though she gained countless fans throughout her career. And any love she couldn’t find from others –despite a number of lovers that crossed her path — became fulfilled with substance abuse to alcohol and heroin, which then lead to her premature downfall in 1970. (Welcome to MovieBoozer!)
It’s a tragic, if sadly familiar, rise-and-fall celebrity fable, and one we’re sadly all too familiar with these days. Similarly, Joplin: Little Girl Blue, the latest documentary from masterful filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), is a powerful, if a little too by-the-numbers, portrait of lost brilliance. Much like fellow musician documentaries Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, both of which also came out last year, this new film decides to let both the musician and her music, and her friends and family speak for the talent-at-hand, and they’re all effective at making their focus pieces feel alive and well-realized again. But unlike those two films, Little Girl Blue feels just a little too perfunctory for it to really stand out. It knows how to sing, but at the same time, it doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its central musician. It’s got all the trouble of the mind, but this flower could use a little more time in the sun to really radiate.
The more you get to know Joplin, the more you got to like her. And the same can be said for Berg’s film. What starts as a pretty ordinary musician documentary quickly grows more compelling the more we’re invited into Joplin’s life, insecurities, and deep-seated ambitions. And in turn, the more the musicians, family members, journalists, and those she influenced open up about her, the more tragic and deeply-felt this documentary becomes. There’s no denying Joplin is a massively fascinating figure, and I can guarantee that there’ll be a music biopic made of her somewhere down the line. I remember hearing Amy Adams was considered for the part at one point, and while she has the singing chops, I don’t know if the Oscar-nominated actress can fully capture Joplin’s otherworldly presence. Janis positively radiated on stage, as that was where she truly felt at home. And the greatest compliment I can give Berg is that she often finds ways to make Joplin just as lustrous off-stage as she was on.
The director, known for her intimacy and deeply human projects, makes Little Girl Blue stand out as more than just your average PBS documentary (it should be noted the public access station helped produce and sponsor the film). She keeps her newest film conversational and therapeutic, and she finds just enough venues and opportunities for her subjects to open up about their deepest regrets and most troubled pains about Joplin’s checkered past, substance abuse issues and untimely death. In fact, my biggest complaint about Little Girl Blue is that Berg couldn’t find more ways to make this stand out — especially compared to her previous, more emotionally sweeping films.
There’s no denying Joplin’s talents. I would say it’s almost impossible to call her untalented. Like I said before, she’s positively glistened on stage, and Little Girl Blue stresses that’s the only place where she could really find herself in life. But, of course, it’s all an illusion. It might not be fake, but it’s absolutely temporary, and she could never find that high anywhere else beyond the drugs she shot up, the booze she guzzled and the failed relationships she could never keep. And even then, she couldn’t truly appreciate the stage light over time unless her substances-of-choice were in her system in some way or another. It’s a sorrowful state of affairs, and it’s told with clear respect and admiration for her legacy. And yet, there’s something missing here.
It’s not for a lack of effort. Berg is still an exceptional filmmaker, and she knows how to keep things emotionally stinging in the right moments. But compared to her earlier work, there’s something a little more… workmanlike here. Its binary use of stock footage mixed with medium shots of interviews is a little stale, and it lacks real passion. Berg never finds a way to make the approach feel fresh, organic or ingrained to her style. Does it swell in the right moments? Sure, but it doesn’t quite have that silent knockout ending, that quietly-earned powerhouse gut punch, that made her past films so soul-crushingly impacting in comparison. Though footage of Joplin, both in past interviews and during performances, is captivating and bewitching enough in its own right here — especially for newcomers like me — and that’s just enough to make watching Joplin exciting, spellbinding, and sometimes magnetizing enough to be floored by her talents, and later a little crushed by her death.
And, truthfully, I have a hard time believing fans will find much here that they don’t already know. Or haven’t seen already, for that matter. There are no startling revelations or shocking insights. And that’s not the point either, I know. But that might end up alienating those who cared about her the most, much like the aforementioned Montage of Heck, because there’s not enough here to truly make them feel enlightened or re-awakening by the artist they loved and cared about so deeply. That doesn’t make it bad, of course. But it does make Little Girl Blue feel a little less gratifying than it very well should have been. It ultimately ends up a little more than a piece of the heart, and not quite in the way it meant to be.
By Berg’s standards, Janis: Little Girl Blue is a bit of a minor effort, especially coming out just months after the exceptionally engulfing Amy. It needs just a little bit more soul, and a wee bit more insight, to truly become as show-stopping as the titular musician. But that doesn’t mean this one doesn’t sing. Oh no, it bellows, moans, and hollers, just not quite as loud as Joplin herself. That was a tall order, though, and one that Berg and her team do an admirable job trying to reach. It’s not as raw and unflinching as it could have been, and those looking for more information about Joplin’s personal life and information unknown prior to now might end up a little blue. But that doesn’t mean this documentary doesn’t have the goods either. There’s a lot to love here and, if you didn’t know much about Joplin before, this is a more-than-acceptable starting point towards understanding her singular power.
Janis: Little Girl Blue (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Janis is shown in an interview or heard off-screen.
Take a Drink: every time life brings Janis down.
Take a Drink: every time Janis’s vocals knock you out.
Take a Shot: whenever Snooky Flowers comes on-screen. Because, seriously, what a beautiful name.
Take a Drink: every time you see the pieces crumble for Janis and her life.
Finish Your Drink: when it finally happens…… You’ll probably need it.