In 1970, Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose at the young age of 27, silencing a voice that had filled millions with joy and inspiration. Now the new documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, which opens this week at the Sie FilmCenter, tells the artist’s story in her own words.
Filmmaker Amy J. Berg has documented some dark true stories — Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis, An Open Secret and Prophet’s Prey. But the saga of Janis Joplin, known as Pearl to her friends and family, had more blue skies than gray, and Berg has been working on it nearly as long as she’s been making films. When she received a trove of Joplin’s handwritten letters, she realized she had an amazing opportunity to let the artist speak for herself, and casting musician Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) to voice the powerhouse adds a unique rawness to the production.The film dives deep into Joplin’s rise to stardom, and shows how her insecurities grew alongside her fame. But amid all that turmoil, Joplin was still a beacon of hope for many women who hoped to kick in the door to the boys' club.
We talked with Berg about the film and the sweet, dizzying force that was Janis Joplin.
Westword: You’ve been known for directing some great documentaries about some rather intense and somber subjects. Did the light around Janis Joplin’s story, dark as it may also be, attract you to this project?
Amy J. Berg: Well, I’ve been working on the film for eight years, so it’s not that I was looking at this as a lighter project. I wanted to tell her story, and it just hadn’t been done. There was one film made about her, a doc in 1974, but it had no real context as to who Janis was, and so I’ve been at it for all of these years, and unfortunately, there were a lot of hiccups. But we finally got it finished, and I’m just so grateful I was able to get it done.
How did you actually come to make this film about Janis?
I started out as a fan, for sure, but I had heard that the Joplin estate was talking to filmmakers, and so I threw my name in the hat, so to speak, because I wanted to be considered and I wanted to learn more about Janis. I feel like she’s such a special force in this conversation we have about women in film and strong women in men’s worlds, and I just think that Janis was someone who really got that going for us, but she took on a lot of weight because of everything that she did — and it took its toll.
Janis’s letters are an amazing way to tell her story, how did you come to find these?
They were one of the first things that I saw when I met with the estate in the beginning, because I wanted to tell the story in Janis’s words and there was no better way than with those letters. But it was definitely a challenge to introduce another voice into the film, and I was very worried about making it right and having it work. But when I found Chan Marshall and listened to her voice, I was so struck by how close her voice was to Janis's, I knew I had found just what I needed.
Did you have Chan in mind for the project the whole time?
I had never met her before this. She seemed very interested in it, but when we started exchanging notes and voice memos right away, I knew it was going to work out pretty quickly.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Janis from interviewing her closest friends, family and lovers?
There weren’t many surprising things for me, but to learn that she was such a people pleaser. Women have such a different role in bands than men do, and she had to keep the morale up and everything going, yet she was also the creative force behind it all. Learning that was surprising to me, but then not really, after you think about it. But in the beginning, it was interesting.
Janis was considered a controversial choice in feminism back in her day. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know if she still is today — that’s subjective — but what we show in the film is that Janis didn’t have to say she was a feminist; she just was one. She acted the part and had a tremendous effect on women as a result of how honest and real and raw she was. But I guess then you have to ask, what is feminism? I think her role in that was that she embodied a modern woman and she took on roles that were traditionally male, and she did it better than men in a lot of cases.
Seeing all of the pieces laid out in front of you, what do you think was Janis’s most important contribution to the world?
I don’t think it’s just one thing; I think it’s just Janis. Her contribution was being herself. She offered us a voice that was fresh, a sound that was totally unique. I think it was the overall impact of who she was rather than just one thing.
Your film comes out this year, the same year as other docs about members of the so-called 27 Club, and that would be Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. Do you think that there’s a deeper connection that can be made to their stories?
Absolutely. These are three singers that all sang their pain out and channeled their childhood trauma and the issues that they carried through adolescence into this music that spoke to people. I don’t think we can differentiate them, although Janis died in 1970 and Amy wasn’t even born yet and Kurt was probably a very little boy — these were different time periods represented. But I think that historically, when you talk about people who pass away from drug overdoses, we as a society don’t view women the same way as we do men in that realm, and I think it’s important that we look at the artistry of those women who left us too soon.
You made your feature-film directing debut last year with Every Secret Thing. How was that experience, stepping into the scripted film world?
It was great! I had a really strong team behind me, and it was a really good experience, and I got to work with some great people, like screenwriter Nicole Holofcener and Frances McDormand. From another angle, it differs in that it was much more scheduled and contained versus a doc, where you’re constantly going back and forth from shooting and editing.
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There’s been a lot of talk about Hollywood trying to cast the right actress to portray Janis in a biopic about her life, and they’ve been at this for years. Care to offer a little fantasy casting for that project?
People have talked about Amy Adams, and I can see how that makes sense — but it’s so hard to imagine anyone being able to fully embody Janis. But then, I thought it was going to be impossible for me to find someone to read her letters and embody her voice, and I stand corrected. I do hope they find the right person and that movie gets made — but honestly, I’m just happy that her story can get told now through this archive and these letters.
What women in music today do you think Janis would be fond of?
I think Cat Power is someone she would probably connect with readily. And I think women like Kim Gordon, Melissa Etheridge, Pink, Linda Perry, Juliette Lewis — these are artists that put everything out there the same way that Janis did.
Janis: Little Girl Blue opens Friday, December 4, at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. For tickets and showtimes, go to denverfilm.org.