Before I was really even aware of rock 'n' roll, some of its biggest stars had died. Jim Morrison in 1971 and Jimi Hendrix the year before, and that same year also saw the death of Janis Joplin.
The rise, brief exultance and sudden death of Joplin at the age of 27 is perhaps the one corner of 1960s rock that hasn't been fully explored, celebrated and brooded upon. In the way that popular culture works, a woman, no matter how extraordinary her talent, doesn't merit the same level of myth-making and worship.
There hasn't been a Hollywood biopic, which seems surprising given how much of the 1960 counter-culture and music has been the basis for big-budget movies. Several Joplin movies have been proposed and never materialized. The most recent, in the hands of Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, with Amy Adams as Joplin, appears to be stuck in litigation at the moment.
American Masters – Janis: Little Girl Blue (Tuesday, PBS, 8 p.m., TV Ontario Saturday, May 7, 9 p.m. and Thursday, May 12, 10 p.m.) illuminates the difficulties in doing justice to Joplin's life and talent. It's a wonderful portrait, made by Amy Berg, an Oscar nominee for her 2006 documentary Deliver Us from Evil, and it is richly layered. While it has many of the standard elements of such documentary biographies – the many talking heads, reminiscing and telling stories from long ago – it has a few extraordinary added flourishes. One is singer Cat Power reading many of Joplin's touching letters to her family. They reveal a Joplin distant from the fossilized picture we have of the loud, raw-throated figure addled by booze or drugs.
The Joplin of the letters is plain-spoken, vulnerable and at times terribly needy. "I wanna be happy, so bad…" she writes in one letter home when she was beginning her rise to fame with Big Brother & The Holding Company. And boy, did she have a lot to deal with, a lot to overcome in her youth.
It's not that her family disliked or disproved of her. Her brother and sister speak about her in the doc with great affection. Born in Port Arthur, Tex., in 1943, Joplin's teenage years there were blighted by the hostility of other kids. She wasn't beautiful in any conventional manner; she was loud and funny and devoted to the blues. This in a town that had an active Ku Klux Klan chapter. At college, a group of fraternity guys named her "the ugliest man" and put that in the school paper. The derision crushed her for a while. Earlier, she had been kicked out of the school choir for her failure to follow directions.
The doc moves slowly through her rise through the music scene in San Francisco. At that time, she was wary of drugs, especially LSD and heroin. But drugs were rampant. A former band member describes a party at which a bottle of cheap sparkling wine was being passed around. When Joplin was told that hits of acid had been dropped in the wine, she immediately went to the bathroom and vomited to get it out of her system. Saxophonist Snooky Flowers talks about the energy she had without drugs and the power of her extraordinary voice. Her performances at Monterrey and Woodstock are dutifully chronicled with excellent footage.
What's immensely moving is the doc's material about her death. The actual overdose and circumstances are not gnawed upon. What's emphasized is the fact that she had achieved a new and maturing understanding of her voice and was on the cusp of transcending the craziness of frantic performances to reach something sublime in her interpretations. A tottering, rough performance of Me and Bobby McGee done on a moving train will take your breath away.
What's also impressive about this American Masters is the manner in which it ends. Amy Berg doesn't stop at Joplin's death. She gives space to several female singers to talk about Joplin and what she represents to them. As Cat Power says, after the experience of reading the personal letters, "Janis was apologizing for herself to the end of her life." Melissa Etheridge says Joplin was the first to actually create a space in rock 'n' roll for women.
The program does Joplin justice with aplomb. It is important to watch from beginning to end – from the rueful memories of an old friend who says that as a teenager, "she was real dangerous to take to a bar" because she would "bait men and start a fight," to the end credits, which has Joplin's mother, Dorothy, reading aloud a note of condolence from a woebegone fan. Her family understood then what she had achieved. They'd always loved her, even if she wasn't sure. It was the world that had a hard time learning to love and appreciate her.