Catching Up with Janis

Her brand of blues presaged 21st century sexual politics.

Janis Joplin in Denmark in April 1969.
Getty Images/Jan Persson
Janis Joplin in Denmark in April 1969.

Janis Joplin recorded music professionally for only a few years, from 1967 to 1970. Port Arthur’s most famous daughter was more singer than songwriter, though her full potential as the latter will never be clear; her best writing credit, “Mercedes Benz,” was recorded just days before her fatal heroin overdose at 27. Still, it’s hard to think of any tune she ever sang, up to and including the ubiquitous standard “Summertime,” that she doesn’t permanently own as a performer. Joplin remains important now, 45 years after her death, through a combination of that indelible voice and her zeitgeisty identification with the exuberant spirit of 1960s counterculture. As probably the most prominent female performer of the hippie era, she’s also a figure of abiding relevance for the various waves of feminism that have come ashore since her untimely death, a few of them arguably stirred up by the deep-water maelstrom of her voice.

If Amy Berg’s new documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, has one glaring fault, it’s the film’s treatment of the apparently still-too-hot-to-handle topic of Joplin’s sexuality. (More on that below, but the film’s faintly infantilizing title may be a giveaway.) Otherwise, the film is a treasure trove of compelling archival material, from concert footage shot by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker to old clips of Joplin’s genial guest appearances on the TV talk show of her friend and occasional lover Dick Cavett. Texas remains a persistent theme throughout the film, thanks to Berg’s narrative device; she tracks Joplin’s emotional peaks and valleys through real letters home to her parents, read aloud in voiceover by indie rocker Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power. Marshall’s Georgia drawl is as warm and partied-out as Joplin’s Gulf Coast twang.

Berg, a seasoned social-issues documentarian (Deliver Us From Evil), admirably locates Joplin squarely in the race and class dynamics of the 1950s Texas Gulf Coast, where she came of age. The film presents Joplin as a child of a prosperous Texaco, Church of Christ family in a town with an active Ku Klux Klan chapter. She is a natural outsider with “bad skin” (acne) who picks bar fights with Cajuns and, one lucky day, imitates an Odetta record and learns that she can sing.

The state capital is briefly dangled as a utopian alternative to Port Arthur, but not for long. “Janis wanted to see this wonderful Austin we were all talking about,” an old friend narrates. “We pulled in at 5:30 a.m. and you could hear music. It wasn’t recorded music, it was live music. She grabbed my arm and said, ‘I think I’m gonna like it here.’” That dream would be dashed a few years later when she was nominated Ugliest Man on Campus during a University of Texas frat contest. In her year as a Longhorn, Joplin was unusual enough to be written up in the Daily Texan under the headline “She Dares to be Different!” Apparently the frat vote was a hive-mind misogynist rebuke to her freewheeling ways.

As Berg tells it, this incident sent Joplin packing to California. Hippie paradise San Francisco is presented as the welcoming opposite of her hometown, which refused to accept her even after she’d won millions of adoring fans in more progressive corners of the world. Toward the end, the film hints that a trip back to Port Arthur to attend her 10-year high school reunion might have put Joplin in the mood for a larger-than-usual dose of the heavy stuff.

There’s no question now of ever silencing Joplin — her shredded-larynx wail is part of the sonic backdrop of America, like purple mountain majesties. Perhaps at worst, she can be turned into a forgettable cliché. One way to misunderstand her legacy would be to paint her into a corner as a middle-class white groovy ripping off African-American musical forebearers. Berg’s film is actually a stirring argument against that reading. Berg stresses Joplin’s early interest in the blues and the nascent civil rights struggle, and it’s easy to see how those influences pointed her toward black vocal stylings as the soundtrack for a kind of white-female liberation.

Another available cliché would be Joplin as patron saint of wallflowers, the ugly girl who turned to music as a way to attract men who wouldn’t otherwise notice her — who, when even fame couldn’t deliver the white knight she pined for, was too brokenhearted to live. Berg’s film more than flirts with this temptation. For instance, Janis: Little Girl Blue foregrounds the singer’s unrequited love for a hitchhiker she’d met in Brazil but fails to mention her physical relationship with Peggy Caserta and downplays her engagement to her cocaine dealer, Seth Morgan. Throughout, the film emphasizes Joplin’s role as a victim of romantic rejection, though she counted among her conquests Cavett, Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen.

One would hope that in an era of emerging progressive values, we could take Joplin’s “free love” a bit more seriously. At the very least, we could give her the same credit for sexual independence that we’d extend to any 27-year-old male rock star. The film backs up its portrayal with Joplin’s letters home to Mom and Dad about wanting to find a nice man to settle down with, but her actions are the more compelling evidence. Joplin’s first relationship in San Francisco was with a black woman; the band that she fronted, Big Brother and the Holding Company, had an Orwellian name that toyed with gender expectations. Even as a performer, Joplin was transgressive with her sexual politics. As Ellen Willis wrote in Rolling Stone in 1976, “Unlike most female performers whose act is intensely erotic, she never made me feel as if I were crashing an orgy that consisted of her and the men in the audience. When she got it on at a concert, she got it on with everybody.”

Squint hard enough with modern-day eyes, and Joplin can start to look like a misunderstood prophet of 21st century sexual politics. But she was no political activist, just a performer groping for a way to make music that felt right. The freedom she sang about was genuinely ambiguous, often in tune with the political liberation movement that outlived her but also “just another word for nothing left to lose.” Her voice is big enough to wrap around that contradiction and others — pleasure and pain, ugliness and beauty, love that’s free and love that feels like a ball and chain.

Michael Agresta, an Austin resident, has written for Slate, the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal.

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Published at 8:47 am CST