Janis Joplin “is a groundbreaking female who was not afraid to break the rules. She paved a path for women to walk on and be who they are inside.”
“She tried to transcend her pain into something beautiful, which is art.”
– Amy Berg
Janis Joplin was arguably the female voice of the sixties Rock revolution. When I was about 15 I saw Joplin perform twice in New York City. From my seat at Madison Square Garden I was able to see her just offstage, waiting to be introduced. As her name was announced to the sold out crowd I saw Janis reach for a silver metal hip flask and take a belt before bursting onstage.
The other time I saw Joplin perform was at an anti-Vietnam War rally at Shea Stadium, which was normally filled with Mets fans, not longhaired peaceniks. For some reason, Shea’s lights were on, full blast, blinding members of the audience.
As we waited for Joplin to take the stage my friend Elliott began shouting: “Shut off the lights!” Soon, the huge crowd picked up the chant, demanding “Shut off the lights!” Sure enough, the stadium turned off the blinding lights – and my buddy Elliott had singlehandedly started the mantra, before Janis went on to rock Shea as profoundly as pitcher Mel Stottlemyre ever had!
With singers like Janis Joplin on our side, it’s no wonder the Vietnam War finally ended to give peace a chance.
When Janis died at age 27 I put up a huge poster of her in my window, where it stayed for years. Joplin left an indelible impression on me, as she did for much of the Flower Power generation – and on Academy Award-nominated director Amy Berg, who was born in 1970, the same year Janis died.
Now Berg has directed the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, which combines thrilling performance clips of Joplin in action, with a more intimate portrait of the woman behind the larger-than-life sixties superstar.
We see Joplin in the Haight-Ashbury days at the Fillmore West with Big Brother and the Holding Company, at the Monterey Pop Festival that rocketed her to stardom, at Woodstock and beyond. But in addition to the archival footage, news clips and TV appearances of Joplin with the likes of Dick Cavett, Berg shows us Janis’ other side through revealing new interviews with her relatives, lovers, friends and fellow musicians conducted specifically for Janis: Little Girl Blue. This Janis was surely Janus-faced.
These interviews give new insight into the humiliations and hardships Joplin experienced growing up in Port Arthur, Texas. They help to explain how this white girl could belt out the Blues and sing the Gershwins’ Summertime as if she was black, as well as her creative drive – and precipitous, untimely death due to a drug overdose.
The reading aloud of her private letters by an offscreen Cat Power (Chan Marshall) allows Joplin to speak to us from across the decades and the void, in her own voice. Along the way, aficionados of classic Rock will also enjoy interviews with and glimpses of Country Joe McDonald, Mama Cass, Otis Redding, John and Yoko, as well as D. A Pennebaker, who directed the 1968 trendsetting documentary Monterey Pop, as well as the 1967 Bob Dylan doc Don’t Look Back.
Los Angeles-born Amy Berg’s 2006 Deliver Us From Evil, about a child-molesting priest, was Oscar-nommed for Best Documentary. For some reason, Berg is drawn to the dark side and most of her other films deal with similarly disturbing subject matter. The 2012 doc West of Memphis, with Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith, produced by Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson, is about the West Memphis Three, youths falsely accused of being child murdering Satanists. 2014’s An Open Secret is about sexual abuse in Hollywood, while 2015’s Prophet’s Prey, which has been playing on the Showtime network, exposes Warren Jeffs’ abusive, polygamous cult. Berg’s sole feature film, the 2014 crime drama Every Secret Thing, is about missing children and starred Diane Lane, Dakota Fanning, Elizabeth Banks and Common.
Although the title character of Janis: Little Girl Blue also had her troubles, this highly entertaining work is also part concert film, with many upbeat moments, including many effervescent, unforgettable renditions by Joplin of her hits that still pack a wallop, such as Piece of My Heart. Alex Gibney, who won the Best Documentary Academy Award for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side and recently directed the HBO Scientology doc Going Clear, produced this touching biopic about the Rock icon who was all too human.
The 103 minute Janis: Little Girl Blue is being theatrically released in L.A. and across much of the USA this December.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What personally drew you to Janis Joplin?
Amy Berg: Well, I was a fan of Janis in my teens. Whenever I make a film I’m always interested in finding out more about the subject. I didn’t know that much about her personally. But I just knew about her music and loved her music.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’re too young to have seen her perform live, correct?
Amy Berg: Right.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I saw her twice.
Amy Berg: Wow.
Rock Cellar Magazine: She was great both times. How is your documentary different from other documentaries about Janis or that Janis appears in, and also in feature films, where a depiction of her was portrayed?
Amy Berg: Well, the only documentary about Janis that I know of was that film in 1974 [Howard Alk’s Janis]. And The Rose [Mark Rydell’s 1979 movie starring Bette Midler as a fictionalized Joplin] is what you’re talking about. How does it differ? Janis: Little Girl Blue is much more about Janis’ relationships with the past; how she handled fame; it’s kind of an ode to her performances. I think everything is different. All three films you’re talking about are very different. I can’t be more specific than that, I don’t think.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your film provides real insight into Janis. How did you get access to her letters? Have they ever appeared onscreen before?
Amy Berg: No. The estate – her brother [Michael Joplin] and sister [Laura Joplin] shared Janis’ letters with me. I was very moved by her candor with her family, her honesty, her need to work things out through writing letters.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Is this the first time members of her family appeared in a documentary? And you have a number of her close friends – is this the first time they’ve spoken on film about Janis?
Amy Berg: Well, definitely her family. I think a couple of her band mates spoke to – there was a 60 Minutes special right after she passed. There haven’t been that many films, as I said before. But I don’t think the people I spoke to have spoken to others. I know David Niehaus [Joplin’s former lover] hasn’t.
Rock Cellar Magazine: How did you get them to open up? They seemed pretty candid.
Amy Berg: Well, they trusted me. They had endorsed me. Her brother and sister decided to share with me and then they – everyone else checked my other work out, they spoke to Laura and Michael, so they trusted me.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In terms of your other work, such as Prophet’s Prey and West of Memphis, they seem to have pretty dark subject matter. On the surface Janis seems to be very different from those other subjects. But do you see any similarities between Joplin and some of the other subjects you’ve depicted in documentaries?
Amy Berg: Well, Janis was misunderstood and ridiculed for how she behaved and what she said. I guess you could draw some comparisons to Damien Echols [one of the accused murderers in West of Memphis], if you wanted to go down that road. He was from a small town in the South also and he was way ahead of his peers and family…
There are scenes obviously in Janis’ life that are quite dark and then she had this amazing talent that she tried to transcend her pain into something beautiful, which is art. I guess you could also say Damien Echols did that type of thing as well. That’s probably the only comparison I could think of in my body of work.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What is your scriptwriting process for documentaries?
Amy Berg: Well, it depends on the film. With Janis: Little Girl Blue I was dealing with found footage more than original footage so I was working in the edit and writing things there. Trying things out, adding in letters, taking out letters, adding in interviews. It was all a process of finding the right story.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In 2012 I saw a bioplay about Joplin starring Sophie B. Hawkins called Room 105, which is the number of the hotel room Joplin passed away in. It went into great detail about the day Joplin died. It didn’t seem there was that kind of detail in your documentary. Why?
Amy Berg: Well, I really did not – I think Janis’ legacy has always been tainted by the way she died, alone in this hotel room on October 4,  rather than the way she lived and the things she left us with. I really did want to emphasize the woman, the artist and the musician.
I think it’s really important that women are remembered the same way men are remembered when they die tragically and young – for what they gave to the world.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I have very vivid memories, even though I was only 15, of her performances. What do you think Janis’ proper legacy is, Amy?
Amy Berg: I think she is a groundbreaking female who was not afraid to break the rules. She paved a path for women to walk on and be who they are inside. You hear it, when you speak to artists like [interviewees] Pink and Melissa Etheridge and Juliette Lewis and Chan Marshall [aka Cat Power], who reads the letters in the film, that Janis gave them carte blanche to be who they are. There’s a freedom in that. It hadn’t existed before Janis.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Can you relate to that as a woman director in Hollywood?
Amy Berg: Absolutely. Absolutely. Obviously there’s such a huge bias. We can’t even put into words how women are viewed in the film business. For me, having the opportunity to document and do a film about a woman who was not perfect – she had many flaws and imperfections. Obviously, she had a tragic ending. But she was a groundbreaker. I feel like the more roles like this there are in the film business then the more it’s going to change the scope of the people behind the camera. I think Janis is continuing to break boundaries for people.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Among the many things that I learned and surprised me in your documentary was this clash while the Monterey Pop festival was being shot over the rights to shoot Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. This results in an additional performance by Joplin, which the filmmakers finally obtained the rights to shoot. Did you have any similar problems getting the rights to any of her songs and music?
Amy Berg: No, we actually got the rights to what we needed. We worked out a nice music deal with all of the songwriters in advance. So I used 34 songs in the film.
Rock Cellar Magazine: And I’d assume that includes Kris Kristofferson, who appears on camera in Janis: Little Girl Blue?
Amy Berg: Yeah, and we used his song [Me & Bobby McGee], of course.
Rock Cellar Magazine: How was it interviewing Kris Kristofferson?
Amy Berg: Great. He’s such a sweet, sweet man. It was great. He had such fond memories of Janis.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Of course, he’s quite a good actor, too.
Amy Berg: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Using your imagination, if Janis survived what would she be like today?
Amy Berg: It’s so hard to even picture her alive today. It’s just really difficult for me. I think the world of social media just doesn’t seem appropriate for someone like Janis. It seems kind of strange to see her on social media. I don’t know; I just can’t picture her alive today.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When will Janis: Little Girl Blue air on PBS’ American Masters TV series?
Amy Berg: In May. We have a pretty long theatrical window before then.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Is there anything you’d like to add about Janis: Little Girl Blue?
Amy Berg: No, I think you asked really good questions that cover important things about Janis. I appreciate that.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What do you have coming up next?
Amy Berg: I’m actually finished with everything right now so I’m really excited to take a break, actually… I don’t have any projects right now, which is great.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Overall, your films deal with touchy, taboo, dark subject matter. What draws you to that, Amy?
Amy Berg: I’m really just fond of telling stories… I’ve been trying to get Janis: Little Girl Blue off the ground since 2007. There have been a lot of roadblocks so I’m just happy that I was finally able to get it finished. I have taken other projects in the interim, but this is the film that’s been closest to my heart in my career.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Why is a documentary about Janis Joplin the one that’s closest to your heart?
Amy Berg: Well, maybe it’s because I had to work so hard to get it done. And because I really do love her. She’s amazing. She’s a groundbreaking woman and her music moves me tremendously. So it was a nice challenge for me as a filmmaker to work with archive and music and story and combine it all into one.
Rock Cellar Magazine: And original interviews.
Amy Berg: Yeah.
Rock Cellar Magazine: So I guess one could say that Janis Joplin took another little piece of your heart?
Amy Berg: Yeah, she took another piece of my heart. [Laughs.] Maybe took a big piece of it.
Ed Rampell is a repeat contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine. He co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” and appears in an episode of the Asylum Entertainment TV series “Demons in the City of Angels,” expected to air on the Reelz Network in January 2016.