Film Review: Janis: Little Girl Blue (★★½)

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Janis 1-Sheet final.inddJanis Joplin’s songs were described by critics as “desperate mating calls” dripping with a need for sex and a desire for love, all of which is depicted in Amy Berg’s latest documentary on the singer, Janis: Little Girl Blue. Joplin remains one of the most enigmatic singers of the time, and though Berg doesn’t give us anything quite as hard-hitting as her past documentaries (Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis, Prophet’s Prey), the clean simplicity of Little Girl Blue lets audiences focus on the music and the woman at the center.

Releasing on the heels of another documentary about a soulful female singer who died young, the Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, Little Girl Blue similarly paints a portrait of Joplin as a woman on the fringes. “She couldn’t figure out how to make herself like everyone else.” Interviewing the likes of her sister, friends, bandmembers, and lovers, Berg gives us as much insight into Joplin as possible, but no voice shines brighter than Joplin’s own.

Heard through her letters, read with the Southern twang of musician Cat Power, Joplin is presented as a “little girl lost,” a term that becomes a bit overused and on-the-nose. Outside of that, Joplin is desperate to please, fearful of disappointing her conservative family and parents who found her embarrassing to their way of life. Her letters are plaintive cries for acceptance at odds with her chaotic, whirlwind way of life. “She rocked the boat as often as she could. She liked rocking the boat.” Maybe it was this rocking of the boat that allowed her to make her own brand of confidence.

At times, Joplin comes off as a voice for women seeking someone who represents them. Callously “winning” an Ugliest Man contest during her college days, a key facet of Joplin’s desire for acceptance comes through her looks. Although it isn’t touched on, Joplin came up in an era of willowy, pretty girls in music, whereas Joplin struggled with her weight and other aesthetic issues. Early in the film Joplin’s own drawings of “pretty” girls are included as illustrations of her own desire for inner beauty and what that looked like. Her songs, many of which are heard or seen on-screen, speak to women seeking love and acceptance while never feeling completely comfortable with themselves. It is sad that Joplin’s bisexuality remains on the documentary’s fringes, introduced without ever explicitly commenting on the fact.

Joplin’s presence as one of the leading female vocalists of the 1960s-1970s warrants a documentary, but Little Girl Blue plays on the wrong side of safe. Berg’s past documentaries have acted as clarion calls to arms, and while there’s no reason to expect that here, there’s little sustainability here. Presented in a typical talking heads style with concert footage, Janis Joplin’s life is presented staidly according to formula. And while most documentaries this year are focused more on a person’s life than their tragic death (which is perfectly fine), not even Joplin’s battles with drugs are examined with any weight or fear, cropping up as an annoyance more than anything. Considering she’s a member of the infamous “27 Club,” I expected more of a broader focus on her death, especially within the context of fellow musicians like Jim Morrison.

Amy Berg’s work presents interesting ideas, opening up uncomfortable topics and laying them bare. Janis Joplin’s life is laid bare best through her own words, but that’s where the exposure ends. Berg rests with a relatively safe document of a musical wunderkind, but there’s little here separating this from other documentaries or books on Joplin, many of which explore her work in a broader context as a means of showing why she’s endured and is considered such a landmark artist. Janis: Little Girl Blue is a great starter documentary, but I expected something more incisive from someone like Berg.