Early in Janis: Little Girl Blue, we hear Janis Joplin talking about ambition and reducing it to the need to be loved. That need was a driving force in her life, her career, and even in her terrible struggles. Even forty-five years after her death, she continues to be an icon of rock and roll. Her voice, the energy of her performances, and her smile continue to be immediately recognizable. Amy J. Berg has created a documentary biography of Joplin using archival footage, interviews with friends and family, and even some of the letters Joplin wrote home to her parents throughout her career. The result is a story that not only looks at the music that was so central to her life, but some of the pain and loneliness that helped to form that music.
Joplin grew up in a middle class home in Port Arthur, Texas. By the time she was in high school, she felt like an outsider. Even when she went to the University of Texas, she never really fit in. There she was voted “The Ugliest Man on Campus”—a contest she didn’t enter. When she discovered the blues, she found an outlet for the emotions that filled her. She eventually found her way to San Francisco at the dawn of the hippie era and there she found a place to belong.
As part of Big Brother and the Holding Company she began making the music for which she became famous. We see that she seems to live for that time on stage. But when that is over, there is an emptiness. The admiration (something easily mistaken for love) brings her great satisfaction. When it is not there, is when she became open to the methods she used to try to mask the emptiness: alcohol, drugs (especially heroin), and sex.
The letters home that we hear are especially helpful in painting this picture. There were often men in her life that she felt loved her more than they seem to think they did in retrospect. Rarely did she have a relationship that constantly provided the love she was always looking for. Even when there was love, she often undermined it with her addictions.
As we look back at her life, we see it as tragedy—especially her death alone in a motel room. But the real tragedy is that love was so hard for her to find. Even in the midst of fame and adulation, she felt alone. There are no doubt deep-seated issues involved in her difficulty in feeling love—and all the substitutes she sought. It is difficult for a film to find such causes. But the film does show us the pain that such loneliness as isolation can bring.