What do you think about when you think about Janis Joplin? Her untamed hair, her eclectic wardrobe, a raspy, soulful singing style that was blues and rock and somehow yet all her own? For many people, she was the quintessential wild child of the late 1960s — especially after her untimely death from a heroin overdose at the age of 27.
Many people have been drawn to her story over the years, but parts of her life have remained a mystery — until recently when Amy Berg, who had previously directed films on social justice issues and abuse in the Catholic church, got word that Joplin's estate was looking to share its archive with a filmmaker.
"She was very influential in my formative years, and I wanted to know more about her," Berg says. "Her music kind of soothed me through some of my more difficult times. She kind of feels like a friend when you're listening to her sing or talk, because she has so many great live recordings where she's very candid with the audience from the stage, so you kind of feel what it was like to be at a Janis Joplin concert."
Granted access to intimate family letters and interviews with those who knew Joplin well, Berg found those moments in spades — and the result is the new documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue. Berg joined NPR's Michel Martin to discuss what she learned about the singer's childhood, her ambivalent relationship to femininity, the awakening of her singing voice and her momentous arrival in San Francisco. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
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MICHEL MARTIN: Now we go from a math legend to a musical one. What comes to mind when you think about Janis Joplin - her untamed, her eclectic wardrobe, her raspy, soulful singing style that was somehow blues and rock and yet all her own?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")
JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) Take it. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby. Oh, oh, break it.
MARTIN: For many people, she was the quintessential wild child of the late 1960s, especially after her untimely death from a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Many people have been drawn to her story over the years, but parts of her life remain a mystery until now. With access to intimate family letters and interviews with those who knew her well, a new documentary called "Janis: Little Girl Blue" tells the story of how she went from awkward, misfit teen to counterculture icon. When I spoke with the film's director Amy Berg, I asked her why she was drawn to Janis Joplin's story.
AMY BERG: She was the first woman of rock and roll, basically. And at that time, women were singing the blues, which is what she was completely inspired by. Or they were singing this kind of folksy, airy type of music, and that's not what she doing. She was standing there with her band and just throwing it out there for people, and it was electric.
MARTIN: You know, I think a lot of people are always interested in how somebody like her, who seemed so much herself - right? - came to be that person. And one of the interesting stories you tell in the film is it was pretty hard won. That was a hard road to get to be who she was.
BERG: Yeah, she had a really tough adolescent experience. She was ahead of her time, fighting for equality and civil rights in the South in Port Arthur. And, you know, it was just unheard for somebody to be doing that in those years. And she found her singing voice through all these amazing blues singers, like Bessie Smith and Odetta and Lead Belly. And she just kind of created who Janis Joplin was back in Port Arthur. And then when she got to San Francisco, it exploded onstage, and people loved her.
MARTIN: I know - I think one other thing that may or may not surprise people is just how close she remained to her family. I just want to play a short clip from the film where her family goes to visit her while she's in San Francisco, and here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE")
MICHAEL JOPLIN: You know, go see Janis. We're walking down the street, and she - she's showing us around. And I was so excited. Then we went to the Avalon Ballroom. And Big Brother was not on the bill that night, but they went on and did two or four songs. And Moby Grape let them have a set because Janis' parents were there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET IT WHILE YOU CAN")
J. JOPLIN: (Singing) And if anybody...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE")
LAURA JOPLIN: When we were getting ready to leave, I remember overhearing one of my parents tell the other one - you know, dear, I don't think we're going to have much influence anymore.
MARTIN: Which cracks me up. That, of course, was an interview Janis' sister and brother. Tell me a little bit about that - her family, how she felt about them.
BERG: Well, she was so conflicted because in Janis' short life, she went to San Francisco early on. And she had a - kind of a bad bout with drugs and was actually sent home on a bus. Her friends threw a party, put money in a hat, bought her ticket and sent her back home to Port Arthur. And so then she decided she was going to clean up her act and be a keypunch operator. And she went back to the local college and started doing her hair differently. And she just got very conventional for a minute, and that obviously didn't work for her.
So when she did go back to San Francisco, she had to do it in a very sneaky way. She couldn't tell her parents she was leaving. She actually lied and said she was going to Austin for the weekend and then wrote them a letter. So when she got there, she kept, you know, asking them to come visit her as, you know, she got in the band and things started working for her. And she was very concerned about trying to make everything perfect so her parents accepted her because this was one of Janis' biggest themes in her life - was acceptance. And, you know, she didn't get it in school, so she was constantly trying to get it everywhere else.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I have to ask about that last year of her life. It just seems from the film that she was finally kind of on the verge of some happiness, and she had quit drugs before, as you just mentioned, earlier in her life. What happened, do you think, to lead up to her dying so young in that way?
BERG: One of the pivotal relationships in Janis' life was David Niehaus, who was this man she met in Brazil. And I think it really challenged her because she had, up to that point, met men who either didn't value her the way she needed to be valued, or they wanted to be with her because she was a rock star. And she finally felt, like, the strength of another person that could have handled her. And she wasn't completely ready when she met him, but I think it triggered a whole bunch of action from her. And she decided to clean her act up, and she was kind of planning to try to find a way to balance career and love. And unfortunately, loneliness and a bad decision took her at the end.
MARTIN: I do find myself asking, as you are a director in a field in which there are not many women functioning at your level - any interesting lessons for you in this is, as a woman whose operating in a world like - rock and roll was very much a man's world back, and filmmaking still is in a lot of ways. Anything you drew from this?
BERG: Yeah, I mean, I think it's really important to try to learn from Janis that you have to kind of keep fighting in this world. But, I mean, we - in the documentary community, we have a lot more females than in the narrative film community. But what I did take away from this - and I hope to implement this in my career - is that I haven't been documenting enough strong, challenging, unredeemable, flawed women in my work. And I think that the more we focus on that, the more we will accept that that's real, and that's how women actually are in the world. And they're not always going to be redeemed at the end like a fairy tale. And Janis is a perfect example of that.
MARTIN: Amy Berg is documentary filmmaker. Her new film is called "Janis: Little Girl Blue." Amy Berg, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BERG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.