Janis Joplin’s raspy, fiery rendering of some of pop music’s most famous anthems has never ceased to fascinate. Yet since her tragic premature death in 1970 at the age of 27, filmmakers have struggled to turn her life into a feature film. Award-winning documentary director Amy Berg was up for the challenge.
The Los Angeles-born 46 year-old had made a huge impression on Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh when they collaborated on 2012’s West of Memphis, a film that would help exonerate and above all free Damien Echols from Death Row, after he had been jailed along with two other teenagers for the murder of three boy scouts. She had been one of the first to explore child abuse by a Catholic priest in Deliver Us from Evil, deemed the best-reviewed film of 2006 according to Rotten Tomatoes and Berg was Oscar-nominated for her efforts.
Berg had been working on Janis: Little Girl Blue since 2007, and the key to making inroads into the Cry Baby singer’s life came upon the discovery of letters revealing her inner world, the unearthing of previously unseen concert footage (at the cost of US$400,000 from her estate) and surprise details surrounding the man in her life at the time of her death.
“The movie is the story of who Janis Joplin was and what she was trying to achieve in her short career,” Berg explains of a movie she describes as 90 per cent Janis. “I wanted her to narrate the story so it was useful having interviews and this amazing unseen footage, including her concert at Woodstock, to show her different incarnations. I chose the music based on personal stories that resonate with the music. There were a few songs I would have liked to have included like Mercedes Benz [released after her death], but there wasn't a visual component.”
Berg stuck with songs suited to the narrative of a troubled young woman. Still, there wasn’t a domineering father to ramp up the drama, as in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning portrait of Amy Winehouse, nor was she like many members of the so-called 27 Club of artists who died at the same age. (Jimmy Hendrix died two weeks earlier, Brian Jones a year earlier, Jim Morrison a year later, and there would be Kurt Cobain, Jean-Michel Basquiat and of course Winehouse to come.)
“You can’t blame the industry for her death, because she embraced the industry and she embraced fame,” Berg says. “If anything, I made this film to dispel the myth because I don't like to see Janis locked into cliché of the 27 Club, to be remembered as a woman who overdosed on heroin in a hotel room."
"I wanted to show her as a talented woman and artist. I feel that everything she was fighting against was what made her who she was. Her history and experiences made her this powerful performer. She left us with such a powerful statement for women as she was basically the first female rock star.”
"I made this film to dispel the myth, because I don't like to see Janis locked into cliché of the 27 Club [..]. I wanted to show her as a talented woman and artist."
The film follows the chubby plain looking youngster growing up in Port Arthur, a conservative Texan town she later described as racist and being hugely influenced by the Louisiana blues playing on the other side of the bridge. In 1962, she moved to Austin to study fine arts at the University of Texas and she played in folk clubs at night. While the local paper cited her for being different, a fraternity voted her the “ugliest man” on campus.
Desperate to escape the small-mindedness she headed for San Francisco, diving headlong into the Haight-Ashbury counter-culture, drugs and music scene where she achieved the peer approval she had long craved, bringing her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to rhythm & blues in her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
“Janis became more herself on stage; it was her way to liberate herself,” says Berg. “But she had this sense that she’d betrayed her family, so she kept writing them letters to try to stay connected.”
Joplin likewise struggled to find love with men, not for the lack of trying, and she tried with women too. “Janis didn’t respond to labels,” Berg admits.
Then, in perhaps the film’s biggest revelation, Joplin fell in love with David Niehaus, who was unlike any other man she had met.
“I think David Niehaus was the missed opportunity for her and I think that relationship shows how famous she was and how difficult it is for a female who’s that big of a rock star to have a personal life. But he was stronger than any of the other men she’d met and he offered her many things she was looking for at that point.”
Niehaus, an adventurous backpacker, had quickly grown tired of Joplin’s heroin habit and had taken off to Kathmandu. Determined to win him back, she wrote him a letter explaining she was four months off drugs, with a new band, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, and was recording new songs.
“I would have loved to have included those last sessions with Paul Rothchild [who produced her final album Pearl] as that was when she was the happiest," notes Berg. "But we couldn't find a thing, not even photos.”
Having not heard from Niehaus and finding herself alone at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles following a recording session, Joplin took that final fatal dose of heroin.
“She had made some plans with some friends and they didn’t show up,” Berg explains. “She took two shots of heroin and overdosed. There was an investigation at the time and this heroin was apparently very, very powerful. She hadn’t been using regularly so it just hit her differently.”
At the end of the film, Berg reveals there was a telegram from Niehaus waiting at The Landmark’s front desk, saying he would meet her in Kathmandu, and signed, “Love you Mama, more than you know”.
“I did get the sense from some people who knew her really well that the telegram might have changed the way things played out,” Berg notes. “But it’s hard not to think she was doomed.”
Grace Slick, the other female rock star of the time with Jefferson Airplane, is a true survivor. Stunning in her youth and best known for her self-penned hit, White Rabbit, Slick, 77, is now an artist specialising oddly enough in painting rabbits. She refused to be interviewed for the film, not for Berg’s lack of trying. “Grace didn't think that we wanted to see her looking like she does now and that just broke my heart.”
Ultimately body image is one of the film’s concerns. “It also ties into Janis’s drug use,” says Berg. “I think she was thinner when she was using methedrine and heroin and that was liberating for her in some ways. In letters that aren’t in the film she makes reference to that. ‘I’m not shooting up and I’m getting fat again’.
“Maybe more with women performers, it’s just not easy to handle that much success and have that much attention in those two hours when you’re performing, and then get on the bus to go to the next city. Pink did talk about the moments on stage being close to God, then she gets on her tour bus and there’s a bottle of wine and she has four hours to sleep and then goes on to do the same thing the next day.”
Pink has been one of the women slated to play Janis in a movie while a more promising project with Amy Adams, Janis Joplin: Get it While You Can, has hit a few snags, over screenplay rights.
“Now that the doc is out there, maybe one of these movies will come through,” says Berg.
Janis: Little Girl Blue opens in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.