Psychedelic soul

Amy Berg talks Janis: Little Girl Blue with D.A. Pennebaker.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Janis: Little Girl Blue director Amy Berg addresses D.A. Pennebaker with Michael Winship
Janis: Little Girl Blue director Amy Berg addresses D.A. Pennebaker with Michael Winship Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

D.A. Pennebaker, joined Janis: Little Girl Blue director, Amy Berg, and Writers Guild of America East President, Michael Winship, at Symphony Space in New York for a discussion that led to Janis Joplin's breakthrough performance in Monterey Pop, Kris Kristofferson singing to Odetta, Cat Power, Bob Dylan, Judd Apatow's family tree, poker with Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson at David Niehaus', John Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Rothchild, Vincent van Gogh, Lester Young and Billie Holiday.

Amy Berg with Michael Winship: "The accomplishment is in having patience because this has taken me eight years."
Amy Berg with Michael Winship: "The accomplishment is in having patience because this has taken me eight years." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Amy Berg, clearly a filmmaker who doesn't shy away from tackling issues of childhood trauma, as she did in her feature film Every Secret Thing, chose Janis Joplin as the subject of her "first archive film", as she calls it. Pennebaker said, "I think of our filmmaking as home movies" and Janis: Little Girl Blue does give us the wounded little girl as well as the groundbreaking musician. Janis is referred to as "a little girl lost" in one moment and "as strong as a mountain lion" the next. Her brother Michael and sister Laura speak on camera, as do childhood friends and mostly male musical colleagues. "She liked rocking the boat," says Michael, the boat at the start being Port Arthur, Texas.

At University, Joplin was voted "Ugliest Man" by a fraternity - a vicious attack that, according to friends, "crushed her". Clips from several visits on the Dick Cavett show and present day interviews with the host are very revealing. "We hit it off right away," Cavett confides. When pushed by Berg to explain how far exactly that went, he grins "you know, my memory is so bad."

At the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Pennebaker captured her slippers and her one-of-a-kind voice blowing everyone away - something that almost was not going to be allowed to be shot by her then record company for the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, Mainstream Records.

Here are some of the highlights.

D.A. Pennebaker on meeting Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival: "I heard her sing. My hair stood on end."
D.A. Pennebaker on meeting Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival: "I heard her sing. My hair stood on end."

Amy Berg: The accomplishment is in having patience because this has taken me eight years. It was not an easy eight years. It's not just the footage because there's this amazing footage. Obviously, the best footage, I think in the film was shot by Penny. You don't find footage like that anymore. The Sixties were unfortunately not preserved the way they should have been.

D.A. Pennebaker: Knowing Janis - and I knew her pretty well - was like standing on the tracks and feeling the train coming and you're stuck on the tracks. There was a fierce and kind of frightful knowledge that you were watching somebody who was going to just blow herself away because she couldn't help it. It must have been like … to know van Gogh, or somebody who couldn't help tearing himself to pieces.

Michael Winship: Was Monterey the first time you met her?

DAP: Yes. I heard her sing. My hair stood on end. We were told we weren't allowed to shoot it but I had my camera and so I did shoot some stuff. World War II - you know, I had to shoot it. I knew that if we didn't have Janis in the film that I was making, supposedly for the Mamas and Papas - if I didn't have her, the film would be awash.

AB: I think it was an interesting safety net that Mainstream posed for her. She needed some stability… Do you guys want to know about the secret about Mainstream Records, Writers Guild people? Judd Apatow's [grand] father is Bobby [Shad] from Mainstream Records. That's his dad [Apatow's mother's father], isn't that interesting?

Amy Berg with D.A. Pennebaker: "Janis, she was born knowing something that most people will never know."
Amy Berg with D.A. Pennebaker: "Janis, she was born knowing something that most people will never know." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In1963 Joplin is off to San Francisco and with the help of numerous letters written to her family back home, read by Cat Power, we gain some insight in how she felt - or at least into what she wanted to expose to her mother.

MW: Can we talk about Chan Marshall, Cat Power?

AB: I was looking for the voice of Janis for probably three years. I really wanted it to be right. There were a lot of actresses through agents who wanted to audition for the part. I heard an interview that she did on YouTube and I was 100% convinced. It literally happened within a week… Cat Power is very much a contemporary Janis Joplin. She's had a very similar life battle as Janis, she's very vulnerable, she's from the South - she understands her and it was just perfect. The letters were the heart of it for me. Before I even did all the work that I did, I read some of the letters that Janis sent to her family and to David [Niehaus]. Those letters to David really drew me into the story. There was this idea that David was the only strong man that saw her not as a musician. He met her on the beach [in Brazil] and just saw her as Janis. And all the guys in her band thought that that could have been something and she just was too far gone, I guess or not ready.

MW: We see him in the film today. What happened to him?

AB: He kept exploring the world. He heard about her death when he went into a news station in Afghanistan. It was on the cover of Time magazine. It deeply affected him. He ended up marrying a surgeon and he lives in Hawaii. He is a mason. He plays poker with Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson in Maui. It's like poker club. He's so cool.

D.A. Pennebaker: "People think that because you're hanging around or filming somebody you know everything that's going on and you don't."
D.A. Pennebaker: "People think that because you're hanging around or filming somebody you know everything that's going on and you don't." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DAP: People think that because you're hanging around or filming somebody you know everything that's going on and you don't. The fact is, you're so busy dealing with your own problem making a film that you're not interested in anybody else's problem. I remember very distinctly sitting on the edge of the stage after the first Monterey thing we shot - we were sitting there with all the cameramen, legs dangling over the stage with Janis and she had her bottle of…

AB: Southern Comfort?

DAP: Yeah, Southern Comfort. I didn't really go for it so much but I had some. One of us said, "Where do you think we'll be in ten years?" And she was saying: "I'm going to be flying," or something like that. And I thought, she is, and hoping that somehow she can hang on. Because that's a hard way to go. Lester Young was always a hero of mine. He really taught Billie Holiday how to sing. Well, she already knew. Like Janis, she was born knowing something that most people will never know. But he taught her [Holiday] to sing with a band. He would teach her to go straight through a song rather than take the turns the tune has. That kind of helped Billie sustain her singing for a long time.

Janis tended to shout. I thought I'd play her some records. She already knew all my Bessie [Smith] records, but she didn't know the Lester stuff. I thought, it isn't going to help her because things, they don't go upriver. But I started to make a film with her. There's one of the shots you [Amy Berg] have in there when we were down on 8th Street, Jimi Hendrix was actually doing the sound for me… You know, musicians have a hard time helping each other. It's like sharks don't help each other. I hadn't been able to help her and it always made me feel bad. Especially when John [Cooke] called and said she's just dead. And I had just done this little film about her and I remember thinking I should have done something, but I didn't.

MW: And Hendrix died a month later.

Janis: Little Girl Blue US poster at the Writers Guild of America screening
Janis: Little Girl Blue US poster at the Writers Guild of America screening Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AB: No, a month before, actually. I remember when you [Pennebaker] told me about Lester - the sense I got from John Cooke was that [record producer] Paul Rothchild was her Lester Young.

DAP: She's like the Statue of Liberty - she stands there and she'll be standing there for the next hundred years people are going to say - I'm going to be Janis Joplin and that's something. [Bob] Dylan will do that, but not too many people survive their generation. Usually, it's only people who have gone through a train wreck to do it. That's why I am always in awe of Dylan because he manages to hold that together and not go through that train wreck… I knew a couple of people that were involved with her. I was in New York and we were all sitting around a table - not filming people scraping the shit of the whatever it's called, the heroin. The guy who wrote the song Billy McGee..

AB: Me and Bobby McGee.

DAP: … came in and said "I've written this new song," and he [Kris Kristofferson] sang it to us. Odetta was there. And Odetta took it up and gave it to Janis. I thought, well, this would be a good song for her but by then I kind of lost track of her. John Cooke, who was a very good friend, was her road manager off and on and sort of looked after her. That was my only contact.

Amy Berg on Janis Joplin writing to her family and David Niehaus: "The letters were the heart of it for me."
Amy Berg on Janis Joplin writing to her family and David Niehaus: "The letters were the heart of it for me."

The sincerity of Janis Joplin in early interviews, the change through drugs and fame and the often still condescending way many of her fellow musicians remember her, make Janis: Little Girl Blue a perceptive portrait. Over the closing credits, Berg assembles a remarkable and eclectic array of short clips. Kristofferson says how proud he is she sang his song, Juliette Lewis speaks of her admiration for her idol, Janis's mother reads a letter from a fan who calls Janis her "best friend" although she never met her, and John Lennon asks a question that should be asked by everyone about drug use.

Janis: Little Girl Blue opens in the US on November 27 and will be screened at DOC NYC on Sunday, November 15 with Amy Berg expected.

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