When I first heard about the latest Janis Joplin documentary on the scene, I knew I had to set my eyes on it. It was one of those rare occasions where you already know you love the film’s subject but you also have faith in the person bringing it all to life. That’s because Amy Berg is the creative force behind Janis: Little Girl Blue. The Academy Award-nominated writer/director (Deliver Us from Evil, West of Memphis) delivers a look into Janis’ world that we’ve never seen before.
Using letters that Janis wrote over the years and some amazing old footage, the film shows us Janis at her most powerful and vulnerable. It features music industry veterans as well as Janis’ family and friends, ultimately providing an almost perfect package. I say “almost perfect” because Janis: Little Girl Blue is light on the many women in Janis’ life–both those she was professionally and romantically involved with. But Amy Berg would be the first person to tell you those relationships existed, and oh, how so.
“I think Janis loved whom she loved when she loved them,” Amy said. “I wasn’t trying to slant it in any way and I want to make sure that that’s clear–that Janis loved men and women.”
And yet Janis’ ex-girlfriend Jae Whitaker took up less than five minutes of the film and little more was said about the rock star’s attraction to women. By comparison, Janis’ ex-male flames got more screen time and her attraction to men was discussed at length. I asked Amy why this was the case, and if she thought Janis’ relationship with Jae was serious.
“I think that Jae was a substantial relationship for Janis–she just met her at the wrong time and she wasn’t ready for that,” Amy said. “I mean she clearly got into heavy drugs right after their relationship and she was sent home to go and heal herself.”
Then there’s the other woman Janis is well known to have been romantically involved with: Peggy Caserta.
“Janis and Peggy had an on-again, off-again sexual relationship over the years that she was in San Francisco,” Amy said. “There was a heroine connection there and that was difficult for Janis.”
But it was a connection on multiple levels that she wouldn’t break.
“The relationships I know of with women that she had were more with people that she was really close with and would kind of be romantic with at different points,” Amy said. “But she would keep going back to them. Like Peggy was a really good example of that.”
Although she was mentioned, Peggy did not want to “put her face in the film.”
“I approached so many women,” Amy said. “I had such a long list of women that were around at that time, and I think there is somewhat of an issue with aging and women and their reluctance to show their face today because they looked a certain way in their 20s. It’s really tragic.”
That also explains the surprising omission of Janis’s female contemporaries. It’s something Amy wishes she could have incorporated into the film, and she certainly had someone particularly in mind.
“The most obvious person to talk to about this, because she was the only other person doing something similar to Janis at that time, was Grace Slick,” she said. “And she told me straight up, ‘Nobody wants to look at me like this.’ That was really sad.”
The film does feature female musicians Pink, Juliette Lewis and Melissa Etheridge, yet they only appear during the end credits. Amy said this is because of the movie’s narrative, and we’ll be hearing more from them soon.
“I had really wanted to include a lot of what they said–I think it gives great context to Janis in a contemporary way,” Amy said. “Fortunately, American Masters has allowed me to put an extended piece together for the broadcast that will air in May, and so you’ll get a little bit more from them.
“You know, I didn’t want you to feel like Janis was dead throughout the movie. I wanted you to feel her life,” she continued. “I wanted to feel her journey, and every time someone who didn’t know her tried to reflect on her, it was in the past. That’s just the way we are as human beings.”
But she understands the disappointment: “Trust me, I wanted to have Melissa Etheridge talking about how Janis sang from a place where she knew how to love a woman.”
Indeed, after all her research it’s Amy’s impression that Janis wasn’t gay or straight. She thinks calling her sexually fluid might be more accurate.
“I feel like Janis loved everybody and she loved feeling loved,” Amy said. “And it wasn’t gender-based. It was based on being in the moment.”
“I think ultimately her quest with men was more about the fact that she was seeking validation from her family. There was this theme in Janis’ relationships with men where she would fall in love immediately and he was going to be the one to marry her. I think that happened over and over again as a reaction to growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s in the South and having conservative parents that were afraid of what her life was like in San Francisco.”
Janis’ persistent need to please her parents is evident in the letters the film exposes audiences to. More than anything, those letters are why this documentary is such a standout. It’s no surprise then that Amy fought so hard to use them.
“The letters were the driving force for me, so I never kind of considered Plan B,” she said. “And honestly, there were a couple of times in these past eight years where the letters became an issue and I had pulled myself away from the film at those points because I needed those letters to tell the story that I wanted to tell. Not just the rock star, but the woman who was seeking validation and trying to overcome her childhood issues.”
Eight years later, what are her hopes for the movie and the Janis Joplin legacy?
“I would love for people to stop focusing on how she died and focus on her life and her music, and realize that she’s somebody that is relevant today–45 years after she’s passed away,” Amy said. “Musically, and as a female groundbreaker.”
Janis: Little Girl Blue opens in New York on Nov. 27 and in Los Angeles and San Francisco on Dec. 4. Visit the film’s Facebook page for updates on future screenings.