Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 26, 2015 11:39 am 
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Lady of the cosmic psychedelic heroin blues

She did not last very long, but she may be the greatest female white blues singer who ever lived. This is a documentary, full of period footage and with narration by some of the living main players and relatives, narrated through excerpts from her own letters read by Cat Power (Chan Marshall), about the life and performing art of Janis Joplin. There was already a documentary in 1974 (by Howard Alk). The current film, written and directed by Amy J. Berg, was produced by docu-maestro Alex Gibney, himself maker of two of two of the most solidly important American nonfiction films of the year, about Scientology and Steve Jobs. Little Girl Blue is a bit of a disappointment, because its methodology is so familiar, and because the quick burnout of a major singing talent seems such a waste. But it's nonetheless got the stuff. Amy J. Berg provides ample documentation and in-depth interviews, and this is just a mythic figure of the period whom we all want to know about. Hers is, after all, one of the trinity of legendary early demises of the Sixties, Janis, Jimi, and Jim. There are searing onstage moments, and it will make your heart bleed.

Her voice was over-strained and wheezy, her style repetitions, but oh how she could tear a song apart and gobble up the stage -- and make her passionate young fans dance in the aisles, even of the Albert Hall -- and she could, and still can, make you weep. In her performances there's a curious mixture of blind, wild improvisation, and a perfect sense of emotional structure, a little like what happens in the long improvisational wailings of Umm Kalsoum. She came from a middle class family in Port Arthur, Texas, where she was mocked and abused in school and in college. Her musical models were black, Bessie Smith, Big Momma Thornton, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, Lead Belly, Otis Redding. The film recounts an early time when an Odetta song was played and Janis astonished by perfectly belting it out in her own voice. There is not as much about her musical development as in the great musical documentary of this year, Asif Kapadia's Amy, about Amy Winehouse. The comparison is unfair, because Amy is so much more recent and there is so much more living material available, including lavish gossip press. We see Janis instead through a fog of drugs and legend.

The implication is that Janis nursed pain from earliest days, pain that made her a perfect blues singer, but only was soothed while on stage. In the dark days after the peaks of Monterey Pop and Woodstock, memorialized respectively by D.A. Pennebaker and Michael Wadleigh, which made her world famous, she drank all the time (Southern Comfort famously her favorite) and shot heroin to ease the letdown after a concert. And so she was at the mercy of enablers like "friend" and sometime lover Peggy Caserta, and of crooked and unreliable drug dealers. The excessively strong heroin of one of the latter was what lead to her death from an overdose, as well as others' in the same week. Peggy, who lived to tell her tale, claims Janis wasn't unhappy, and that they did heroin for fun. (Doesn't everyone?)

Janis had to get away from Texas, so she went to San Francisco in 1963. The new home proved to be essential to her career, but the first time, though recording an unreleased album with the future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaudonen, she became a meth addict and shrank to skin and bones. After two and a half years her friends gave a party and raised the money to send her back to Texas, where she got clean for a while and attended college, but still performed in Austin. Her reputation led to her being brought back to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury drug and music scene to join (and actually overwhelm) a new band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. From then on it was in and out of drugs and alcohol, mostly in, for Joplin, who went through various boyfriends, lovers, and would-be husbands as well as having involvements with women, and tried to refrain from injecting heroin before a concert performance.

She struggled with her backup bands. Big Brother and the Holding Company were criticized as lousy musicians, but seemed to work better for her than their successors, and the influential rock critic Ralph J. Gleason said she should return to Big Brother. In some things she was governed by the powerful producer Albert Grossman, also Bob Dylan's manager at this time, who must have had something to do with key tour and performing decisions and so with Janis Joplin's sudden fame. The fame, perhaps more than any childhood traumas, contributed to the stress and wild partying that were fed and/or assuaged by Janis' ongoing immersion in drugs and alcohol. Perhaps we are more often reminded here of the latter because of how she died.

Even for those who didn't hear her sing she became a pop-cultural figure of the psychedelic Sixties life whose capital was San Francisco, its retreat Marin County. Her fur muffs, puffy sleeves, big necklaces, Lyle Tuttle tattoos, fluttering long hair interwoven with feathers, her goofy eyes and wide grin were part of an emblematic image of blissed-out excess that made her instantly recognizable: Woodstock and other memorable events would not have been the same without her.

The film is structured by the remarks of a few narrators, a manager, relatives, surviving lovers and fellow musicians, and so can't quite keep up with all the complexities of the touring and the recording.* What it can do is provide a lively picture of the wildness and the intense energy and passion of the life as she roared through the Sixties and 1970 up to October 4, when she was found dead of an overdose at 27. Along the way, besides high points at Monterey, Woodstock, Madison Square Garden and the rest, where she often performed less well under the extreme pressure than at small San Francisco venues because she got too high, there were numerous appearances on the Dick Cavett show, which have been preserved, and we get some fascinating excerpts of them: they had a remarkable rapport. We could use some more extended excerpts of her song performances, to show how they were shaped. We would not be watching this movie if she had not been this extraordinary performer. But what we do get is, as Noel Murray says in his AV Club review, "some of the most fiery rock ’n’ roll performances ever captured on film."

Briefly in 1970, when Janis was "hitchhiking" around northern Brazil, she met young fellow American tourist David (George) Niehaus, leading to a blissful, drug-free period, which unfortunately ended after a while back in California, so that the smitten Niehaus reluctantly had to leave her. As he says here her suggestion that he stay and become her manager "was a tempting offer, but the heroin I couldn't even begin to put up with." Janis did heron because "what she felt basically was the blues," Niehaus says. "She could feel everybody's pain." One senses that Niehaus was and is a healthy person, and his testimony about having to leave her provides a sense of deep loss. More than the wily, complicated Amy Winehouse, the simple, innocent-seeming Joplin inspires a feeling of tenderness and sadness.

Janis: Little Girl Blue, 103 mins., debuted 5 Sept. 2015 at Venice (out of competition); also Toronto, London, other festivals. A PBS "American Masters" production. Release date 27 Nov. 2015. Opens 4 Dec. at Roxie Theater, San Francisco.
*For a detailed choronology of her performing and recording life, see the Wikipedia article, "Janis Joplin".

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