Janis Joplin documentary, ‘Little Girl Blue’

11th February 2021 | Concerts, Inspirations | 3 comments

This week we watched Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary about Janis Joplin, ‘Little Girl Blue‘, which tells Janis’s story with the help of letters she wrote to her family while on tour. It’s an absorbing watch, full of great footage, excellent interviews with her family, friends and bandmates, and touching insights into Janis’s evolution from spiky teenager to powerful rock icon.  I found myself thinking of Amy Winehouse, another super-talented young woman who came to grief through drugs.

However, as a musician myself, there were things I would have loved to know more about – the same things, actually, that are missing from most documentaries about musicians. Janis had a unique vocal style. Where did it come from? What was the musical path she took, and did she work hard to develop it in the privacy of her own room? How did she arrive at what we now think of as ‘classic Janis Joplin’, and was she satisfied with it? Did she consider other styles? A glimpse of what influenced her was given by a telling clip of Otis Redding, but his influence wasn’t really analysed.

The clips of Janis at the height of her fame show her blend of energy, ecstasy and violent intensity. Often that came out in a kind of shrieking. On stage she seemed to be ‘losing it’ – giving herself up to a world of feeling, excitement, maybe rage. Eyes closed, head thrown back, sometimes yelling so loudly that it must have been difficult to hear the rest of the band …. and yet as you listen you realise that she knew exactly where she was in the phrase, in the trajectory of the song.

She knew how many verses she had sung, where to switch to new harmonies, how to approach the end of the song. She knew when the band were going to cut in with instrumental phrases. Clearly this had all been worked out ahead of time, but despite giving the impression of someone in the midst of a full-blown high-decibel meltdown, Janis remained alert to the structure and detail of the song. This is not easy to do. She had a kind of twin-track consciousness – able to follow an objective plan shared with other musicians, yet also to abandon herself to the ecstasy of the moment. Many musicians can do one or the other, but when they try to combine them, something is lost. Janis could combine the two.

I first discovered Janis Joplin when I went to college. She had died not long before, at the age of only 27, so we had a sense of having just missed something precious. I loved her album, ‘Pearl‘.

3 Comments

  1. Alison Joyce

    Thank you! I must look out for the documentary. I have always found her an extraordinary and intriguing singer, but you identify aspects of her performance of which I was previously unaware.

    Reply
  2. Rikky Rooksby

    Really enjoyed reading this response, coming as it does from someone who works in a very different area of music. I share your frustration at what doesn’t get covered in films and documentaries about popular music – so often they are focused on biography at the expense of the music itself. Janis’ persona was an uneasy mixture of one-of-the-boys assertiveness and neediness. Along with the fact that her bands were rather ramshackle, the latter has been a factor in why her reputation has not survived as well as those of Hendrix and Morrison who died around the same time. Ever since Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ and Madonna’s stardom in the 1980s it has not been an attractive trait for female singers to exhibit in their songs too much reliance /need for men as Janis tended to (and other 1960s singers). For me, there is a raw and gauche quality in her performances that is sometimes vulgar but always authentic in its pain. I think her greatest recording is the cover of ‘Little Girl Blue’.

    Reply
  3. Susan Tomes

    Rikki, thank you, these are interesting points! I hadn’t considered the changing attitudes towards female ‘neediness’.

    Reply

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