Thursday, May 19, 2016

Janis: Little Girl Blue DVD Review

Janis: Little Girl Blue is an excellent and completely engaging documentary about Janis Joplin. It takes an interesting approach to its subject, using letters that Janis wrote to tie concert footage to her ongoing internal struggles, to provide a more rounded and personal perspective. And this approach is incredibly effective.

Interestingly, the first letter read begins, “Dear family, I managed to pass my twenty-seventh birthday without really feeling it.” It’s interesting, because as we all know, Janis wouldn’t see her twenty-eighth. In that letter she talks about talent and ambition. The letters, by the way, are read by Chan Marshall. After that first letter, the film goes back to her youth, and essentially from there goes in chronological order. A lot of information is supplied by her younger sister, Laura, in an interview. Also interviewed are her younger brother Michael and several childhood friends, one of whom mentions being stunned the first time he heard Janis sing an Odetta song. Another friend recounts the time that Janis was voted “ugliest man” by fraternities. “And it crushed her,” he says. It was soon after that that she moved to San Francisco. There is also footage from several interviews with Janis, including one where she says, “I couldn’t stand Texas anymore and I went to California, ‘cause it’s a lot freer.”

Of course the documentary provides plenty of live concert footage of Janis Joplin with Big Brother And The Holding Company, including them performing “Down On Me.” The film includes interviews with Big Brother members Dave Getz (who says early on she was afraid of drugs), Sam Andrew and Peter Albin. And Bob Weir provides some funny anecdotes. Janis was romantically linked to the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan for a time, and in a letter home she writes, “Isn’t Pigpen cute?” She had included a photo of herself and other members of Big Brother on the steps of the Grateful Dead’s house on Ashbury, and the documentary includes that photo as well.

There is also some interesting stuff about the Monterey Pop Festival, and how the San Francisco bands didn’t sign the movie releases, which led to director DA Pennebaker (who is interviewed in the film) and others convincing Big Brother to do another set so that they could film it. In a letter home afterward, Janis talks about things going well for her, about moving into a house and about her new boyfriend, Country Joe McDonald. McDonald is interviewed, and he says: “We were never in love with each other. There was no sizzle going on.” The footage of the band in the recording studio is great, especially as the band discusses the song “Summertime.” The film does a good job of stressing the sense of community among the musicians of San Francisco, and how when Janis left Big Brother it was like she also left that feeling of community.

This documentary does a great job of showing the connection between her life and her music, like in that awesome version of “Cry Baby.” And because most of the letters included in the film are letters to her family, the ties to her childhood dreams and fears are maintained, and the connection between her music and her personal life is thus strongly illustrated. Through the letters and interviews, the film gives us a sense of being really close to her, and because of that, at times, this film is heartbreaking.

Special Features

The DVD includes a few extra scenes, including one about San Francisco venues the Avalon and the Fillmore. In this scene, Bob Weir talks about the venues being dance halls, and Dave Getz and Peter Albin talk about the differences between the venues. Another scene shows members of Big Brother doing a little impromptu acapella jam. The third scene is about Janis Joplin’s influence on music and singers, and includes interviews with Chan Marshall and Melissa Etheridge. The last scene is footage of the ceremony on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, when Janis Joplin’s star was presented.

Janis: Little Girl Blue was directed by Amy J. Berg, and was released on DVD on May 6, 2016 through MVD Visual.

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