Janis Joplin: Beyond her tragic death

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Janis Joplin
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

The traditional image of Janis Joplin isn't terribly complicated: Amazing voice, wild-child ways, dead too soon.

Documentarian Amy Berg complicates that view — thankfully — in Janis: Little Girl Blue, airing at 7 p.m. today as part of our American Masters series.

Berg, who worked on the film for nearly 10 years, had the full cooperation of Joplin's estate, giving her access to remarkably intimate letters the singer wrote home to the family she left behind in Port Arthur. Those letters (narrated by Chan Marshall, better known as the singer Cat Power) and copious concert and interview footage help Berg depict a full life beyond the cliches.

"I don’t want to minimize the fact that she was drinking all the time and doing drugs," Berg told Vogue. "That ultimately did take her away from us. But I do feel that women are remembered differently than men in that realm of young stars who overdosed. Men are remembered for who they were. Women are remembered for the tragedy, the loss. I wanted to put some breath in that. As tragic as the loss is, [I wanted to show] what her life was like, what she gave up."

"Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue" -- Summer of Love

What surprised me most in watching the film was Joplin's ambition, which took her from her small Texas home to a short, ill-fated stint with Big Brother & The Holding Company and finally to her mega-stardom as a solo artist before her death from a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

"I been lookin' around," Joplin says in one letter featured in the documentary, "and I noticed something — after you reach a certain level of talent… the deciding factor is ambition, or as I see it how much you really need, need to be loved, need to be proud of yourself."

Joplin always had that need to stand out, younger brother Michael says in the documentary.

"Janis (realized) if you go rocking the boat, you might get noticed, and she rocked the boat as often as she could," Michael Joplin said.

"Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue" -- Snooky Flowers

Yet despite her outsized talent and her quest for attention, she still had doubts about her skill.

“Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin. Now, they are so subtle, they can milk you with two notes,” she says in the film. “They can make you feel like they told you the whole universe. ... But I don’t know that yet. All I got now is strength. Maybe if I keep singing, maybe I’ll get it."

And, as Berg presents it in Little Girl Blue, she was just about there at the time of her death, when she was working on her second and final solo album, Pearl, with producer Paul A. Rothchild. Singles like "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Mercedes Benz" showed her at the height of her creative gifts.

She came so incredibly close to finding what she wanted, the film argues, only to be undone by an addiction she desperately wanted to kick. Berg even finds a short-term boyfriend, David Niehaus, who met Joplin in Rio de Janeiro and helped her detox on the beaches of Brazil.

"She could feel everybody's pain," Niehaus says in the film. "That's one of the reasons she did heroin — so she didn't have to be involved in everyone else's life. Most people can be oblivious to what's going on around them, but Janis couldn't.

"She couldn't block it out."



American Masters — Janis: Little Girl Blue airs at 7 p.m. today on Panhandle PBS.



* Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and at www.facebook.com/chipchandlerwriter on Facebook.

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