Cry, Cry Baby

Janis: Little Girl Blue finally examines Janis Joplin’s one-of-a-kind life, talent

In some quarters, the free concert at Altamont Speedway marks the end of the 1960s. Chronologically, it's very close—Dec. 6, 1969—but the argument goes that the optimism and spirit of the 1960s died that day, along with four concertgoers. The violent concert took place fewer than 120 days after Woodstock, perhaps the late high point in hippie counterculture, and some events that followed Altamont, would continue a rude awakening for a generation of young music fans.

By early October 1970, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were gone. Paul McCartney sued the rest of the Beatles two months later. Jim Morrison was dead by summer 1971.

Morrison and Hendrix have had biopics already, and there's not enough money in the world to buy the rights to tell a complete story of the Beatles. Not that the world really needs a single additional word written about the Fab Four. Janis Joplin, on the other hand, has largely been unexamined. Her short life has been earmarked by Hollywood for at least a decade, but a film in development to star Amy Adams is currently embroiled in a lawsuit.

While we wait for that treatment (or one that does get off the ground someday), there is the revealing new documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue. The film relies heavily on access to Janis' family and friends, as well as former bandmates from Big Brother and The Holding Company, to chronicle her unsteady youth, her quick rise to fame and her sad, preventable death. Her correspondence with her parents fuels the exposition of Janis' life, and the producers selected singer Cat Power to narrate her letters. It's an effective device that shows us a more private side of such a public figure.

Janis, further revealed through TV interviews and rare studio footage, impresses as more well-rounded and introspective than her Haight-Ashbury footing might suggest. The singer arrived in San Francisco first in 1963, hoping to catch on with the growing folk music scene. Drug addiction forced her back to her native Texas for a time, but she was back for good in San Francisco by 1966.

The timeline after that hardly seems possible. She joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band that would wow the first Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and had a number one album with them five months later. She left Big Brother in late 1968 and formed the two other bands she would play with over the next two years. Concert footage, from Monterey, Woodstock and other performances, paint an unmistakable portrait: Janis Joplin was a genuine article. Even when she was allegedly heavily drugged, she could command the stage and unleash a dizzying array of vocal theatrics that blended blues, country and soul to usher in a new era of rock singing.

And then, of course, there was the heroin. After her first failed move to San Francisco, Janis cleaned up and refused harder drugs during her stint with Big Brother and the Holding Company. But they were a constant in the years thereafter and heroin was her drug of choice. While not ignoring it, the film doesn't really take a very strong position on her addiction, as if her death was something of a foregone conclusion.

Joplin shares more than a drug-related death with Jimi Hendrix. Both are members of the lamented 27 Club, musicians who died at the age of 27. Its ranks include the previously mentioned Jim Morrison and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, as well as Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, whose own untimely death from substance abuse was so brilliantly captured in the documentary, Amy, earlier this year.

Janis: Little Girl Blue elevates the singer beyond a handful of rock n' roll classics and membership to music's most tragic fraternity. She was, and remains, one of a kind.

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