That need did not deter her from pursuing her ambitions. She showed great courage and integrity, at times on that journey even if some of the choices might have been misguided. As in Amy, the film moves chronologically through her life from the teen years to her early death at the age of 27 in 1970 – the same age Amy died at 41 years later. Both had a deep seated musical integrity and a raw vocal talent. In both cases the descent to drug and alcohol addiction appears to have been fuelled by commercial success and the pernicious influence of certain ‘friends’.
Her very first composition ‘What good can drinkin do?’ foreshadowed her committed relationship to Southern Comfort in the years that followed. There is a degree of dark humour as we hear some of the survivors of that era fondly recalling the drug parties as a high point of those years – as if there had been no consequences.
Janis came from a conservative middle class family in Port Arthur, Texas. But she did not inherit the family values. During her teen years Janis had a strong rebellious streak and a deep need for attention. Trips to Louisiana with some of her male friends often culminated in fights with the locals. Her support for racial integration in her native Port Arthur, a town with a strong Ku Klux Klan presence, got her into serious trouble and may have been a factor in those physical confrontations in Lousiana.
I would have liked to have heard more of her life prior to the teen years – and perhaps an indication of where that need for attention and to be loved came from. Maybe it was innate. But despite the various interviews with family and friends from her teenage years, it felt as if something was missing from the jigsaw.
Nevertheless, this is a compelling story of the relatively short journey of a very talented singer and writer – who only discovered her singing talent in her late teens. That raw vocal talent was infused with an emotional vulnerability borne of a number of deeply wounding experiences painfully recalled in this film. Port Arthur was not a place for the faint-hearted.
Her musical influences are evident in the footage of her live performances – there are shades of Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, Odetta and Billie Holliday. Janis had a unique talent for live performance. It was visceral from the get-go. Word of those performances began to spread and when she moved to San Franscisco in 1963 at the age of 20 she began recording and performing in earnest. Unfortunately her use of drugs also became more earnest – the struggle with addiction was to become the greatest challenge of her life and would lead to her pre-mature death.
A chance meeting with a man on a beach in Rio, who could perhaps have been something of a soul-mate and a saviour provides a fascinating chapter in itself. His contemporary recollections of the relationship that followed are very insightful and give an glimpse of an potentially happier life she might have had but for her addiction.
Janis began to rise to fame nationally in the mid 1960s as the lead singer of the rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. She was the main musical influence on their second album “Cheap Thrills”. But she was also a wonderful singer of the blues and her biggest hit was with Kris Kristofferson’s folk song ”Me and Bobby McGee”.
Towards the end of the film we see Janis returning to her High School re-union ten years after she left – and shortly before her death. The candour and pain of her interview amidst a scrum of journalists is raw. Her association with the Chelsea Hotel in New York is mentioned but Leonard Cohen’s song of the same title in which he describes an encounter with Janis is not –a pity because the song captures something of her essence and wit.
“….You told me again you preferred handsome men…
but for me you would make an exception.”
Janis: Little Girl Blue was very satisfying and remained with me in
the days that followed.