There’s a quote that haunts the legacy of the late singer Janis Joplin. “Onstage, I make love to 25,000 people,” Joplin once said. “Then I go home alone.”
Those words seem to encapsulate perfectly the two sides of Joplin. On the one hand there was the performer, that quintessential ’60s acid queen, with her bangles, her rose-tinted glasses, and her feather boas, a trippy, sexy extraterrestrial with a superhuman voice. On the other hand there was the human being: booze in hand, needle in arm, a lonely misfit, always unlucky in love, who channeled her sadness into searing blues music. Joplin’s words resonated because they captured the fish-out-of-water-ness of being a woman in the boys’ club of rock ’n’ roll. And they resonated because they seemed to foreshadow her tragic death, alone in a hotel room at the tender, unlucky age of 27, from a heroin overdose.
But there’s a lot of territory between face of the counterculture and cautionary tale. And now to fill in the gaps, we have Amy Berg’s new documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, which surveys Joplin’s life from her difficult childhood as the eccentric daughter of white-bread parents in the conformist town of Port Arthur, Texas; through her early years of musical and sexual discovery in Austin and San Francisco; to her initial success as the front woman for the not-quite-good-enough band Big Brother and the Holding Company; to her superstardom as a solo artist and the out-of-control drug use that accompanied her success.
Berg, who had the full cooperation of the Joplin estate, had access to an archive of letters the singer wrote home to her family. The letters, read for the film by Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), are intimate not because they reveal the true Janis, but because they reveal her as she wanted her family to see her. In addition, Berg uses archival footage of Joplin’s media appearances; concert and studio footage shot by D.A. Pennebaker; and interviews with Joplin’s childhood friends, bandmates, former lovers, and siblings. The portrait that emerges is multidimensional and complex. The singer was at turns ambitious, preternaturally talented, intuitively musical, romantic to a fault, omnivorously sexual, magnetically charming, ballsy, deeply empathetic, and painfully insecure. But most of all, Berg reveals Joplin as simply young: a 20-something still struggling to harness a massive talent, still negotiating a painful upbringing, still keeping her fingers crossed that she might be due for some storybook happiness. Seen in that light, her death was not the last gasp of a depressed and doomed woman; it was a foolish, awful mishap, one that kept the world from ever finding out just how powerful and brilliant a fully mature Janis Joplin might have been.
Berg got on the phone with Vogue.com to discuss making Janis: Little Girl Blue and Joplin’s complicated cultural legacy.
You just had another major documentary premiere, Prophet’s Prey, about the cult leader Warren Jeffs. How did these two projects coincide?
I’ve been working on Janis since 2007. I heard that her estate was considering collaborating with a filmmaker. I went in for the job like others did. I think I was just very passionate about it. They showed me some letters; I was just really moved by what I saw.
I’ve had some roadblocks. There were periods when we weren’t doing anything. I’ve been trying to get things moving for a long time. I’d grab interviews with people as I could get them. It wasn’t an official deal until three and a half years ago. This is how it works with documentaries: You’re working on things, then not working on things. It was a long process.
In that process of familiarizing yourself with Janis’s life and her letters, were there things that really surprised you?
It was surprising to me how fearful she was of failure, how much she wanted to please everyone. I think the thing I really learned the most about Janis was about her instincts and her taste. She had such a sense of music and fashion and people. She just knew how to do all of that so instinctually. That’s what makes her so unique.
I inherited this idea, maybe from my parents, that Janis’s phenomenal musical talent was undermined by a sort of pathetic personal life. Your movie acknowledges that notion, but also complicates it. Were you very aware of wanting to debunk that understanding of her?
Yeah. I was really interested in the idea that Janis has this legacy of being a Southern Comfort–drinking heroin addict who died all alone. I felt like once I started reading letters and talking to people, her life was so much more valuable than those clichés. I don’t want to minimize the fact that she was drinking all the time and doing drugs. That ultimately did take her away from us. But I do feel that women are remembered differently than men in that realm of young stars who overdosed. Men are remembered for who they were. Women are remembered for the tragedy, the loss. I wanted to put some breath in that. As tragic as the loss is, [I wanted to show] what her life was like, what she gave up.
This whole thing about feminism, too: The feminists were giving Janis a hard time at the end of her life for being too overt, too sexual. But when she was out there, she was being a feminist without saying she was a feminist, which I thought was really interesting.