Director: Amy Berg (as Amy J. Berg)
103 min | Documentary, Biography, Music | 5 February 2016 (UK)
It feels churlish to observe that the course of Amy Berg’s new documentary on iconic singer/songwriter Janis Joplin feels somewhat familiar, given that the sad reality is that Joplin is far from being the only music artist in recent memory to have suffered a widely-publicised and tragic early demise. Asif Kapadia’s hit documentary Amy, released less than a year ago, sketched a depressingly similar portrait of its subject: Amy Winehouse. Both Berg and Kapadia’s films push the same conclusion: these performers drew on their tormented, complex personal lives to fuel their songwriting and live acts, but fell victim to unconquerable, deep-seated insecurities that led to and were complicated by substance abuse. Its easy to feel like this is some horrific rite of passage for those fated to ‘burn brightly’.
Berg builds her portrait of Joplin in quite a conventional way in terms of the design of the film, with perhaps the most noticeable flourish being her use of Joplin’s own letters written to her friends and family, interspersed throughout the narrative and read by Southern-born indie rock star Cat Powers. But the ace up the director’s sleeve is the access she gained to the Joplin estate, and the archive footage (though some it is quite pixellated, maybe due to digital clean-up efforts) of Joplin both on stage and recording, some of it apparently rarely, or never, seen before. The film hits you with Joplin’s raw energy straight away, opening with concert material that exposes you to that unmistakably fiery, emotionally-charged voice that seemed like it couldn’t possibly come from such a diminutive frame, built from a love of the blues and earlier performers like Odetta. Film buffs will no doubt pay extra attention to footage shot by legendary filmmaker D.A Pennebaker, who helped break Joplin out into the mainstream through his filming of the famous 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, when she was still singing with the Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Berg also has enough blunt-speaking talking heads assembled to transmit a fairly detailed sense of Joplin’s influences, achievements, flaws and complexities. Contributing at various points are her siblings, Pennebaker, the BBHC members, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and even TV Host Dick Cavett. Pretty much everyone from every stage of Joplin’s life appears to have been rounded up. Their reminiscences, and footage of Joplin off-stage, suggest an infectiously chirpy (one interviewee fondly describes Joplin as a ‘typically loud’ Texan girl, and it fits), mischevious, intelligent, but easily bruised young woman who carried each hurt with her for a long time, including one horrible incident, recounted by a tearful friend, where she was voted ‘most ugly pupil’ in high school.
Despite growing up laced with insecurities at being the outsider at home and in class, Joplin did have ambitions for artistic success and fame, eventually overshadowing, and then dropping her bandmates to go her own way. But she never outran a constant, nagging fear of being alone. Such an uncontainable, combustible personality could never have flourished in an apple-pie Texas hometown like Port Arthur, and the exotically hipsterish San Francisco ‘60s scene is evoked well through Berg’s material, it being the city that finally gave Joplin the sense of acceptance and support she needed, even if it ultimately wasn’t enough to get her fully clear of her demons, and was were she discovered that drugs were going to be her real Achilles heel. Berg pays more attention to Joplin’s achievements than her demise however, and that feels entirely right. This is a solidly executed, compassionate, and interesting documentary about a figure of intriguing duality, and undeniable charm and talent.