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film review

In the documentary, Janis Joplin’s recorded music threads through a parade of family members, band members and others who recollect and help tell her story.Michael Ochs Archives

In this competent documentary on the life and times of a blues-screeching little girl lost, a friend of Janis Joplin recalls the performer's formative days in Port Arthur, Tex. "She couldn't figure out how to make herself like everybody else. Thank goodness." But given that Joplin died in 1970 of overdoses of loneliness and heroin at age 27, just how much thanks does goodness deserve?

The singer is famous for a few songs, including the one in which she invited others to "have another little piece of my heart now, baby." People took, and are still taking – director Amy Berg (the documentarian behind 2012's West of Memphis) is not the first to come at Joplin's life with compassion, scalpel and microscope. Berg, for example, takes inspiration from the same letters home from Joplin that provided the basis for sister Laura Joplin's Love, Janis, a 1992 memoir that spawned a stage musical of the same name.

One of her letters, written to her family in her last year, concerns the meaning of ambition, which, Joplin had come to believe, had nothing to do with the quest for position and money, but everything to do with a need to be loved and a need to be proud of oneself. It doesn't appear Joplin ever got enough, and that the love she received during her one hour on stage each night couldn't make up for the lonely 23 off. (The letters – prim and often apologetic – are read by the singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, a complicated figure herself. Marshall's capture of Joplin's vocal manner and more is striking.)

The documentary breaks no new ground aesthetically or otherwise. Joplin's recorded music threads through a parade of family members, band members and others who recollect and help tell her story. Musician Bob Weir recalls Joplin's relationship with his Grateful Dead bandmate Ron (Pigpen) McKernan, with whom he shared a house in San Francisco. Weir remembers that Joplin's enthusiastic mattress work in a room next to his was distracting. She was, he says, "not real quiet in the rack."

More often, the memories are sad. Someone who sang country blues with Joplin at the University of Texas recalls her as "one of the boys." He tells the story of Joplin being voted "ugliest man" on campus. "It crushed her," he says. Of course it would.

We see archival interviews with television's Dick Cavett, who coyly admits to being extra-familiar with Joplin off the set as well. Joplin was active bisexually, and while former lover Jae Whitaker is interviewed, Joplin's lesbian relationships are otherwise downplayed.

Comparisons of Janis: Little Girl Blue have been made to Asif Kapadia's touching 2015 documentary on singer Amy Winehouse, but in Amy we don't see a subject as remorseful as the Joplin presented by Berg. Where Winehouse was defiant, Joplin is childlike in her repentant, approval-seeking letters to her family. "I'm awfully sorry to be such a disappointment to you," she writes, perhaps referring to her heroin battles. "Please believe that you can't possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do."

The film ends with Joplin's version of the minor-key Broadway ballad Little Girl Blue, a sublime rendition that shows a singer evolving in her craft and an artist keenly in touch with her emotions. "Baby I know just how you feel," she sang. And no one doubted that at all.

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