When documentarian Amy J. Berg set out to make a film about Janis Joplin, she was aware of the performer’s indelible music and legendary performances, but these incredible audio and visual elements weren’t what drew her to tell the story.
Instead the Oscar-nominated director said it was a series of letters between Janis and a lover, David Niehaus, that led her down the path to Janis: Little Girl Blue.
“The letters really led me through the film and through the issues that Janis was dealing with,” said Berg at a recent screening of the documentary at Film Independent at LACMA. “It’s who she really was struggling to be inside that I wanted to show you as much as I could, to represent what her letters were saying.”
While Janis had many boyfriends, Berg said Niehaus, a traveler Janice met on a trip to Brazil, was a special case. “David represented the person that was strong enough to handle Janis the woman—not Janis the rock star, but Janis the woman. She was confronted with the drug issue, the rock star issue and the woman issue all at once when she met David.”
The film, using Janis’ letters to Niehaus and to her family as its primary narrative device, shows how Janis, struggling to balance all of these opposing forces, was unable to hold onto Niehaus. “She really lost something that she didn’t want to lose,” said Berg, “She was trying to fight for it but she didn’t know how… I think that’s an issue that women still face today when we’re pursuing what we want to pursue. How strong should you be? Should you be vulnerable? How much are you judged based on the fact that you’re a woman? Janis was the first one to deal with all of that.”
“Here we are talking about the disparity in female filmmakers and [what women in the industry earn]. And women putting themselves out there as desperate or vulnerable or needy is such a turnoff in so many ways because they’re a woman. And Janis was just like, ‘Let’s talk about this. Let’s get it on the table.’”
Berg said Janis was remarkable for her willingness to have those kinds of conversations at any moment.
“After the show they’d be in a hotel room. And the guys in the band are obviously hooking up with young groupies and Janis is surrounded by women wanting to tell her their problems and just connect. And she’s this sponge. And she’s like, ‘Where’s the local talent? Why am I in this situation and those guys are off doing their thing?’ But she would give herself to them and I think ultimately that is what drew her to heroin, unfortunately. Because she needed to put some kind of a block between her and her fans.”
Berg said another reason for her making this documentary was to correct a problem she sees with the public perception of women who die from drug overdoses.
“I am so tired of how women are remembered when they overdose,” she said. “Janis is [known for] Southern Comfort and dying of a heroin overdose and she is so much more than that. And I feel like men are remembered differently. You don’t think about Jim Morrison in that way; you don’t think about Jimi Hendrix in that way. And Janis is never on those lists, in terms of rock and roll history, and I think that it’s because she’s a woman. And she deserves it.”
Janis’ sister Laura Joplin was also on stage for the Q&A. When asked what her reaction was on first seeing the film, she said “it was like having my sister back.”
Joplin said that when Berg approached the family about doing the film, she presented a clip as a sample of what she wanted to do. “I could feel, even in ten minutes, that Janis was a person again. She wasn’t a washed-out image of years ago,” said Joplin, gesturing toward the screen. “And there she is.”
Janis: Little Girl Blue will be released in select theaters on November 27.
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger