Janis: Little Girl Blue is a documentary which looks at the life of powerhouse ’60’s blues singer Janis Joplin, who joined the infamous ’27 club’ when she succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse in October 1970. Being a huge fan of ’60’s music from an early age, particularly Janis’ brand of blues rock, I’ve long had a great admiration for her. She had a raw, bone-rattlingly powerful voice like no other that helped revolutionise the way we thought about female vocalists. So an offer to review Janis: Little Girl Blue was not one I was going to turn down.
Charting Janis’ life from her teenage years (after a brief run through her childhood) to her death, the film runs chronologically, using letters she wrote to her family over this time as a sort of framing device. Read out by the musician Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), these add a strong sense of poignancy to her tale, which could otherwise have easily fallen into the simple ‘lived fast died young’ bracket. Right through to the end, the letters were sweet and sadly apologetic, displaying a vulnerability not evident in her wild, passionate musical performances.
As well as using these letters to give the film emotional weight, director Amy Berg sensibly avoids using talking heads from celebrity fans (other than a couple over the credits). Instead we only hear from those who actually knew Janis – her family, friends and band members. This helps keep the film from being a fluffy ass-kissing affair and keeps the film focussed on Janis as a person rather than a mythical music icon. A wealth of personal artefacts have been made available too, including a scrap book of notes and photos on top of plenty of archive film footage.
There’s little talk about the four albums she released. Berg realises most people interested in Janis will have already heard these and if you want to hear them, you can go out and buy/stream them. The film is here to tell us Janis’ tragic story and not to sell records. Saying that, her incredible music is ever present and it made me want to plug the gaps in my collection.
The film is very similar to the recently released Amy, which looked at the life of Amy Winehouse. Both artists shared similarly tragic and short lives, corrupted by drugs and alcohol, and the films have a similar personal approach too. Because of this it’s a bit of a shame that Amy came out first as it’s garnered all the praise when this is almost as strong a film in my opinion. Amy did elicit more of an emotional reaction from me, but that might be because Janis was dead before I was born, whereas I can remember Winehouse’s death very clearly. Or perhaps Asif Kapadia’s film milked the tragedy more effectively. Either way, I did feel Amy was a little more powerful.
Nevertheless, Janis: Little Girl Blue is a fine example of a biographical music doc done right. It doesn’t revolutionise the format and didn’t get me all dewey eyed by the end, but equally it doesn’t really put a foot wrong. For that reason I’d recommend it to Janis fans and newcomers alike.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is out on DVD now in the UK, released by Dogwoof. The picture and audio quality seemed decent although I was watching on a lower tech setup than I usually watch my films, so I can’t judge it too effectively.
Special features include a bunch of deleted scenes, which are well worth a watch, delivering some more anecdotes and perspectives on Janis and her life. You also get some footage of the Walk of Fame ceremony and a trailer.