Berg's new documentary re-examines the rock icon who died at age 27
The new documentary from Amy Berg completes a trifecta of impressive music docs in 2015: first Nina, then Amy, now Janis.
Janis: Little Girl Blue, the story of Joplin's rise from small-town Texas to the heights of rock stardom, opened in New York today at IFC Center. The film opens next Friday in LA [ArcLight Hollywood] and in San Francisco [Roxie Theatre], with other cities to follow.
She was struggling at a point when the only acceptable thing for women was being a schoolteacher or being a housewife and Janis was out there becoming like the most amazing woman ever.
Berg's film comes a few months after the release of What Happened, Miss Simone?, Liz Garbus' documentary about Nina Simone, which recently earned an IDA Award nomination, and another IDA Award nominee -- Asif Kapadia's Amy, about British singer Amy Winehouse.
Berg made the film in cooperation with Joplin's estate, which gave her access to the singer's letters [Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, voices excerpts in Janis].
"The letters brought so much depth to Janis," Berg noted at a Q&A that followed a screening of her film at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
Laura Joplin, Janis' younger sister, recalled getting the missives Joplin sent from the road.
"The letters when we received them brought her life into color and I think that when I read them [again] she comes back more completely," Joplin said. "And so I really treasure the fact that while we have the film which captures moments and we have stories from other people the letters allow her to tell her own story and I just think that’s very special."
Berg began working on the film in 2007, drawing upon some of the singer's most acclaimed performances, including her appearance with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, an iconic moment captured by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker in his landmark film.
"That was her coming out party," Berg said. "That was such a big moment for her and it was so amazing for him [Pennebaker] to be the one to have caught that on film."
But there was some footage she couldn't draw from.
"Certain performances, amazing moments in history, were just not recorded. This was the best story I could tell with what I had," Berg said. "Every time I watch [the film] I have to leave because I want to do more work to it. I feel like there is just so much to Janis. Like how do you tell the [story of the] most powerful female rock n’ roll star in history in one pass?"
Joplin and Amy Winehouse are both members of the "27 Club" -- music greats who died at that untimely age -- a group that also includes Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
"In the '27 Club' we always put the women in one box and the men in another box. The women are remembered for how they died and the men are remembered for how they lived," Berg said. "I just feel like Janis is left off these amazing lists of like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page — like these are the people we always put in the top 10 of Rock n’ Roll and she was up there, you know. She didn’t have any training. She brought everything that she loved and hated in her life and just put it out there. I feel like it’s really important to not just categorize her as somebody who had a heroin overdose at the end of her life."
Comparisons between Joplin and Winehouse are inevitable given some parallels between their lives, but Berg says in many respects they were quite unalike.
"I feel like it’s not the same story. There are similarities but it’s so different because of Janis’ relationship with fame. I mean Janis loved being on stage. She loved performing. Amy Winehouse was -- like she couldn’t get onto the stage it was so painful for her. They’re such different women."
The film offers viewers a glimpse of the Joplin who might have been -- an extraordinary singer who had even more room to grow. Said Berg, "It’s just so tragic that she didn’t have a second chapter."
Laura Joplin said she appreciated Berg's film for the way it depicts her older sister as a creative force: 'That she wasn’t a fluke and she wasn’t directed by someone but she was creating her sound."
Joplin added, "She died in 1970 and, even as I spent a large part of my life dealing with her legacy, to see the way that Amy has put it all together allows her to have the complexity of a real person and allows the doubts to be there. You know it’s not just the actions, it’s really much more of the integrated person."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.