Film

The Performances Rule, but This Janis Doc Robs Her Agency

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Yes, Janis Joplin made a hell of a record out of Rodgers & Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” but you’re right if you winced to learn that Amy Berg’s new documentary feature about Joplin takes that song as its title — and as its dismal argument and organizing principle. “I want to be happy so fucking bad,” Joplin wrote in a letter, and so we hear that here, along with that stunner of a story that in 1962 the frat-house bullies at the University of Texas at Austin voted her the school’s “ugliest man.” The singer and songwriter Powell St. John, who knew her back then, is shaken discussing it: “By the time she got to Austin, she’d already been profoundly hurt over and over,” he says. But he only saw her cry after that.

As the film heaps all its sadnesses on us, the rest of Joplin languishes unexamined. A high school friend describes young Joplin astonishing him one day by singing a perfect imitation of Odetta, and Berg likewise treats her subject’s talent and ambition as sui generis, a caterwaul a lonely girl lucked into rather than the art a singer worked at. We catch glimpses of a scrapbook that Joplin kept, and for all its snapshots of rockers and Haight life, what amazes most is an early news clipping from back home in Port Arthur, Texas: “Library Job Brings Out Teenager’s Versatility.” Read fast and you can glean its gist — Joplin, who we’re never encouraged to think of as bookish or independently productive, had whipped up impressive posters.

Berg’s assemblage of home movies, performance footage, and vintage interviews is marvelous, but there’s not an idea in the movie’s head except she suffered, she sang, maybe heroin kept the hurt away. In her exquisitely pointed liner notes for the 1993 Janis box set, Ellen Willis characterized the commonplace shorthand of Joplin as “lusty hedonist and suffering victim.” Little Girl Blue reduces even the reduction, barely bothering with the lusty part. A Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmate recalls bunking near her as she wailed in the sack, but her complex sexuality — purportedly free with the times but in truth often subordinate to her male partners’ — otherwise is played as just one more hard knock: While her musicians got laid, she usually schlepped to the hotel alone. (Her bisexuality is touched on so lightly you might miss it.) Nobody is on hand to discuss the provocation of her public appearance, the cheery defiance of her stage presence, the urgent cultural impact of her female stardom, or the craft and technique of her throat-shredding fury.

Berg usually makes prosecutorial docs. She’s exposed pedophile priests and producers, and she aspired not just to exonerate the West Memphis Three but to rouse us to believing that the real murderer must be a local ne’er-do-well who looks creepy on camera. Here, she hooks a pair of notable men for not having loved Joplin better. Narrator Chan Marshall — a/k/a Cat Power — reads from a letter Joplin had sent to her mother dishing that she and Country Joe McDonald were a couple — “the cutest thing,” according to everybody “in the rock scene.” Cut to McDonald, today, saying they had just been friends. More awkward still is this admission from Dick Cavett, on whose talk show Joplin revealed herself as quick, thoughtful, and well-spoken: “We may or may not have ended up intimate. I just know my memory is bad.”

Considering all that we know today about addiction, is Berg truly suggesting that Cavett’s possible disinterestedness as a lover is part of why Little Girl Blue turned so often to the needle? The movie won’t acknowledge that Joplin’s voice or image were her own, and in the end it even gives her demons to the men.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Directed by Amy Berg

FilmRise

Opens November 27, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center

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