Decades before Amy Winehouse travelled a similarly doomed trajectory, there was Janis Joplin. Like Winehouse, she showed a precocious talent in her teens and also like Winehouse, she achieved success quite suddenly, after an incendiary performance at the Monterey pop festival in 1967 kicked her career into the stratosphere; and almost inevitably, she succumbed to the allure of hard drugs and died of an overdose just as her career seemed to be getting back on track after a temporary lull.
As a youngster, I adored Joplin. Something about the layers of pain that bled through that extraordinary voice entranced me. I had the Cheap Thrills album which she recorded with Big Brother and the Holding Company and I played it a lot, back in the day, the volume cranked up to the max. It’s undeniable that Joplin was one of the first white women to make her mark in the male-dominated world of rock ‘n’ roll but more than that, hers was a career that was based almost entirely on the evocation of sorrow and loneliness. Janis: Little Girl Blue is a powerful biopic that looks back at her career from its first stirrings to its tragic conclusion and despite the inherent sadness, there’s much here to relish: her extraordinary performance of Ball and Chain at Monterey, her super-charged appearance at Woodstock and, perhaps most presciently, her toe-curling press conference at her ten-year high school reunion, where she returned to her home town to flaunt her fame in the faces of the people who had voted her ‘ugliest man in college,’ only to look about as comfortable as a goldfish on a hot grill.
Of course, you don’t really have to be a Joplin fan to enjoy this film, but it certainly helps. For many, her voice is a grating screech that they’ll simply never warm to. For me, it’s one of the greatest voices in rock history. It’s interesting to note that towards the end of her career, she was learning to control that voice, to experiment with the many different facets it contained and this film leaves you with the conviction that there were great things to come. But fame is always most impressive when it burns fierce and hot and is prematurely extinguished by mortality. In a way, Joplin set a tragic example that would be followed by countless others over the decades.
As biopics of musicians go, this is a good one. But be warned, if you’re a big softie like me, it might be advisable to take a pack of tissues. You’ll need them.