Filmmaker Amy Berg tells the story of Janis Joplin with sympathetic straightforwardness in "Janis: Little Girl Blue," and that's fine: Joplin herself provides all the excess. A useful primer for beginners and a welcome reminder for those who know (or think they know), the documentary makes the case for Joplin as the great white female blues singer not only of the 1960s — a slam-dunk — but of all time. That's more than probable, but the tragedy of the singer's death at 27 of a heroin overdose is that more time and more recordings would likely have proved the matter beyond doubt. Her last album, 1970's "Pearl," was by far her most nuanced and best. There's so much we never got to hear.
As the title implies, the documentary presents Joplin as a woman-child whose many emotional bruises made her both tougher and sadder. Berg ("Deliver Us From Evil") paints the singer's home town of Port Arthur, Texas, as a two-dimensional strip of conformity where a girl who wasn't conventionally pretty or who didn't behave was singled out for derision. Joplin was kicked out of the school choir for "not following direction," was harassed for speaking up in favor of integration. Says a childhood friend, "She couldn't figure how to make herself like everybody else. Thank goodness."
Yet, when she started imitating Odetta songs at parties, people's jaws fell. "Who knew this little troublesome kid could sing so well?" recalls one onlooker. Joplin moved to Austin, where she found local fame in folk joints and was crushed when University of Texas frat boys voted her the "ugliest man" in Austin. By 1963, she was in San Francisco, which was just warming up for the big '60s be-in.
The legend is that Joplin was by far the best thing about Big Brother and the Holding Company, the group with which she came to fame. The legend doesn't lie. Even the band's graying members, drummer Dave Getz, guitarist Sam Andrew, bassist Peter Albin — admit their chunky, approximate blooz-rock wouldn't have gone very far without Joplin out front, wailing through "Piece of My Heart," Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain," and even "Summertime" like an exposed nerve. "Little Girl Blue" includes live footage from the Fillmore West, the breakthrough at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and many, many other goodies, and a viewer is struck fresh at Joplin's unholy gift for timing and for placing her emotions so front and center that the entire performance seems to bleed.
She could also steamroller a song with screeching, a tendency encouraged when Joplin went out on her own with the Kozmic Blues Band. There her shortcomings as a group leader became apparent and the attempt to re-create a horn-heavy soul revue — a la her idol Otis Redding — overwhelmed the singing. She fared much better with her final Full Tilt Boogie Band, with which she recorded "Pearl" and her biggest hit, 1970's posthumously released "Me and Bobby McGee."
"Little Girl Blue" brings on Chan Marshall — a.k.a. singer Cat Power — to read Joplin's feisty, often-touching letters to family and friends, and we hear from the singer's grown siblings, fellow musicians, and ex-lovers. She was great fun; she was terribly needy. In her own words, she made love to 25,000 people on stage and went home alone. Bob Weir tells anecdotes about Joplin's lusty romance with the Grateful Dead's Pigpen McKernan, and talk-show host and friend Dick Cavett — their televised interview segments are reprised here and are wonderful — diplomatically allows how he and Joplin might have had a brief thing if his memory were any better, which it's not. (The mind boggles.)
Heroin wasn't her greatest love but, after alcohol, it may have been her most reliable solace. She quit junk several times and seemed clean at the end; her death came more as a surprise to those who knew her than those who didn't. "Little Girl Blue" bears a resemblance in its arc and its empathy to "Amy," last year's documentary on Amy Winehouse, but Joplin seems the far tougher bird, welcoming fame and finally beginning to make some sense out of it before she died.
Berg touches perhaps too lightly on the singer's romantic relationship with women, and she certainly could lean harder on the indisputable fact that Janis Joplin was the first real female rock 'n' roller — ever — and the only one until Patti Smith came along. I'd like to think of the singer watching this movie somewhere, nodding in thanks at what it gets right and howling with laughter at what it misses.
Note: The Friday night premiere screening at the Regent will include a live musical performance by singer Kate Russo.
★ ★ ★
JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE
Directed by Amy J. Berg. Starring Janis Joplin, narrated by Cat Power. At Regent Theatre in Arlington. 103 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, nudity, cheap thrills).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.