The new documentary about the life of incendiary 1960s blues singer Janis Joplin, by director Amy Berg, has opened in São Paulo this week. Contrary to the classic biography on the singer – Buried Alive, written by Myra Friedman, and first published in 1973 – the documentary chooses to show a less torturous and painful facet of Janis, who comes off in the movie as an intelligent, charismatic and sensitive human being. An extremely talented woman, way ahead of her time, who looks to fame and acclaim to fit in and be loved, Janis’s short and intense life is celebrated, rather than mourned, in this mind-blowing film.
Born on January 19, 1943, into a conservative and suffocating family, who wanted her to become a teacher, Janis grew up an outcast, the target of frequent bullying at school in the backward Texan city of Port Arthur. Unconventional, outspoken and aggressive, Janis broke the mold of what was expected from women in those repressive years of the 1950s and early 60s.
When zitty-faced and overweight Janis found out she would never become one of the curvaceous and cute models who leapt from the covers and pages of the women’s magazines everyone read when she was a teenager, she left home and headed for San Francisco. The neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury welcomed Janis with open arms. She had found her soulmates. She felt totally at home and could finally blossom as a woman and artist.
Janis Joplin belonged on the stage. She would rip herself open in front of an audience. Her performances – many of which feature in the documentary, but can also be found on YouTube– are raw and soul-wrenching. Audiences – both in the live presentations depicted in the film and the one watching it from the comfortable seat of a movie theater – look on enthralled and silent – experiencing a jolt of pleasure, pain and self-realization, through the music emanating from this force of nature.
When I sing, I feel like when you’re first in love. It’s more than sex. It’s that point two people can get to they call love, when you really touch someone for the first time, but it’s gigantic, multiplied by the whole audience. I feel chills, explains the singer.
The movie narrates Janis’s story from her childhood in Port Arthur to her untimely death due to an overdose of heroin at a hotel in Hollywod at age 27, covering in detail all the phases of her meteoric career. Janis struggled with drug abuse from the very first years in San Francisco; the problem only got worse as she became more popular.
The addiction, however, did not stop Janis from exploding to notoriety during the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, when she debuted as a full-fledged blues singer, mesmerizing the audience with a legendary rendition of Ball and Chain (see video below).
From then on, many doors started to open and Janis never stopped climbing the steps of success and recognition, as one of the best blues singers of all time. Stardom, however, which she had sought for most part of her life, proved elusive and unsatisfactory, after all. On stage I make love to twenty five thousand people; and then I go home alone, complained the lonely diva. She could never shut out her personal ghosts, insecurities and anxieties, unless she was working.
Although, Janis Joplin recorded only 4 albums in her 4-year career: Big Brother and the Holding Company (1967); Cheap Thrills (1968) ; I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969) Platinum and Pearl (1971, released posthumously), her fame is enduring and she continues to captivate new fans with songs such as Cry Baby, Summertime, Mercedes Benz, Maybe, and Me and Bobby McGee (her best selling single).
Janis Joplin – Little Girl Blue, the documentary – will surely enlist a new wave of fans. After all, many young people can’t wait to find music which is not as innocuous and washed-out as most pop songs they download from the Internet today.