DOC NYC ’15: Exploring an icon in “Janis: Little Girl Blue”

After spending years making films about male abuses of power, director Amy Berg tells realscreen how making a documentary about rocker Janis Joplin inspired her to shift her focus to female-centric stories.
November 12, 2015

Many who watch Amy Berg‘s documentary about Janis Joplin will already know how it ends: with the influential rock singer dead from a heroin overdose in 1970.

That image of Joplin has carried on through the decades thanks to the rock and roll cliché of the 27 Club, which refers to the group of musicians who died, usually tragically, at age 27.

Two of the club’s more recent inductees, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, were the subjects of high-profile docs in 2015 but Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue goes the furthest to reclaim its subject from that characterization.

“Janis was so much more than a woman left lonely in her hotel room,” Berg tells realscreen during an interview held the day after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “I wanted to make sure that her life was celebrated. I wanted to show that without Janis Joplin there wouldn’t be an Amy Winehouse, a Melissa Etheredge or a Pink. She laid the groundwork for all of those women. If you’re waiting for her to die the whole time, you will not enjoy this film.”

Janis: Little Girl Blue pairs archival footage with Joplin’s personal letters to her family that chronicle her rise to fame in the late 1960s as a singer, first for the psych-rock group Big Brother and the Holding Company and later as a solo artist.

Berg delves into Joplin’s formative years in her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, and the events that ultimately drove her to California to escape the social mores prevalent in the 1950s. A free spirit who sang folk music, performed barefoot and later became obsessed with blues and soul music, she was mocked for being overweight and later voted “the ugliest man on campus” by a fraternity at college.

Joplin eventually found kinship and community among the musicians in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie community. A breakthrough performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 is presented in Little Girl Blue through footage shot by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker showing the then-unknown singer dazzling The Mamas and the Papas’ Mama Cass, whose mouth is left agape upon hearing Joplin’s piercing wail.

Her romantic relationships with men and women are documented, as is a pivotal love affair that will cast Joplin’s death in a new, heartbreaking light for anyone who has not delved deeply into available biographies.

As Berg traces Joplin’s life through talk show appearances, concert films, footage shot by her tour manager – including the only known clip of Joplin singing a demo version of her posthumous hit Me and Bobby McGee backstage on the 1970 train tour Festival Express – Joplin’s “sex, drugs and rock and roll” image is contrasted by the vulnerability of her correspondence to her mother, which is narrated by musician Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power).

“Janis Joplin’s music has been a part of my life all the way through,” Berg says. “I had Janis there for break-ups and celebrations. I’ve always loved Janis Joplin, but didn’t understand her on the level that I started to understand her until I read her letters. That was what made me want to do the movie – her letters are so different from the powerhouse female you see on stage.”

Not unlike Joplin, Berg says she had loving but strict parents who often fretted about her exposure to media. As such, those letters became a relatable access point for the filmmaker.

director amy berg

Director Amy Berg (Photo: Olivia Fougeirol)

“[The letters] were so vulnerable and intimate. She was always seeking validation – it’s so obvious now – and I thought that was so sad because you’re never as good as your next gig. That’s the world we live in. She was constantly trying to get validation from everyone. She got the best validation when she was performing on stage.

“As a filmmaker, I felt some connection with people not liking you,” she continues. “You have to get to a point in your career – hopefully I will one day – where you don’t care if people don’t like what you do. So I understand that. I think for a female it’s even harder because we’re constantly being questioned about the fact that we’re doing something.”

Janis had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August before screening at TIFF, in London and this weekend at DOC NYC. Distributor FilmRise acquired the U.S. theatrical rights and will give the doc an Oscar-qualifying run on November 27 in New York and Los Angeles.

Berg signed on to direct the documentary eight years ago after being approached by Joplin’s estate, but financing fell through when a well-known producer – whom Berg declines to name – walked away from the project. “I was broken-hearted because I put two years of my personal time into trailers and treatments and sales pitches,” she says.

The estate liked her vision and wanted to keep going, so Berg enlisted the aid of documentarian Alex Gibney, whom she calls a deal-making “master.” He helped bring London-based financer/distributor Content Media on board, as well as PBS arts strand ‘American Masters,’ which will premiere the film on U.S. television in February.

Research and licensing were major undertakings. There are 34 songs in the film as well as archive from Joplin’s family, friends and colleagues, filmmakers such as Pennebaker, and archive houses including Getty Archive, Critical Past and NBCUniversal Archives, among others.

The research team also managed to access a network of chat rooms – dubbed the “underground network” – frequented by footage collectors from whom they sourced a lot of silent footage.

Janis is Berg’s first historical archive film so her challenge was to tell an emotional story around single-camera performance footage without a lot of exposition. That meant ensuring that the lead-up to key performance scenes – such as Monterey Pop and Woodstock – had enough context to allow Joplin to do her thing on stage while advancing the drama.

“It was very important to hit certain songs because they resonated in an emotional way,” she says. “I didn’t want to have a lot of talking in and out of these performances. There are some scenes where you have to narrate your way through them but I wanted her performance to do what it should do. The film kept getting denser and denser and then slimmer and slimmer; it was a different way to edit.”

Janis comes at the end of a hectic four-year period in which four projects came to fruition. The past two years saw the release of her scripted debut Every Secret Thing; a Showtime doc about polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, Prophet’s Prey; and An Open Secret, a controversial film about child sexual abuse in Hollywood.

The latter film became mired in public squabbling among the filmmakers after the doc’s poor box office performance, with producers initiating arbitration proceedings accusing Berg of failing to promote it. (Asked about the situation, her response was, “No comment.”)

Berg says that after years of investigating male abuses of power, she enjoyed focusing on one character. Janis has also inspired her to shift her focus to female-led stories.

“I now feel a strong responsibility as a female filmmaker to focus on strong female characters,” says the director, who likes to surround herself with women-heavy crews.

“We have to look at the way we portray women in documentaries, because that will bleed its way into narrative filmmaking. A lot of films are inspired by documentaries.”

Janis: Little Girl Blue screens at DOC NYC on Sunday (November 15) at 6:45 p.m. at the SVA Theatre. Visit the festival’s website for details.

  • This article first appeared in the current November/December 2015 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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