When I first heard Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”, I had never heard a voice like that before. Amy Winehouse’s singing was the most beloved voice to ever make love to my ear drums.
When I saw similar performances by Janis Joplin in the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, and watched the blood of her soul on stage, I immediately felt the same love I feel for Winehouse. I’m envious of those who had Joplin as their original soul woman; I’ve decided to steal her as my own.
Janis: Little Girl Blue was a groovy time machine. While watching, I became a hippy from the 60’s. I lived and witnessed her in her time.
The movie walks throughout her life, from humble beginnings to the abrupt end. Joplin, who moved counterclockwise against everything except time, was light years ahead. She was odd. Growing up in school, she was always the crooked line in a circle, not fitting in with other girls. And guys weren’t interested in her, until she sang. Then she transcended.
When Joplin decided society didn’t fit her, she pursued her dream as a singer. She moved from Texas to California, only to return home with an alcohol and drug addiction and a fairytale love which inevitably ended. She hit California again to become the Janis Joplin that would springboard her career; she became the lead singer of the Big Brother and The Holding Company.
Janis: Little Girl Blue moves with the eclecticism of Joplin’s life and voice. I was transfixed by her, as if I was seeing her sounds and hearing her visions – all interchangeable senses – because Joplin emotes a blissful incoherence. Her musical aesthetic provided the high for her fans, which as the documentary portrays, was sadly derived from her nemesis needle filled with heroin.
Anecdotes from the documentary show Joplin being ostracized as an outcast. She won “the ugliest man on campus” award. She was an ugly duckling, and evidently an ugly duck. As a Black man, I asked myself, What was ugly about her? Her prominent nose? Lips? Bushy hair? Was it her curvaceousness?
She was like a black woman with white skin. I love this about her. Was it her feminist ideals that were blatantly and obtrusively ahead of her time? Did her unpopular ideals of equality for women and minorities make her seem ugly?
Her sister said that while growing up, Joplin was vocal in her ideals for integration, while others were continuing to stand for the segregation of races. She also wanted to break from the traditional roles of a woman. In juxtaposition to her era, she was ugly indeed. She had the cursed gifts of presence, aura, and a penetrable voice.
Maybe I’m weird too, when I heard Joplin’s music, I heard songs filled with pain and soul and candescent beauty. I felt the ugliness of her broken heart from scorned lovers, the pain of never feeling validated, and always feeling like an outsider. Throughout Janis: Little Girl Blue, I embodied her ugliness on and off stage, the good and the bad. I felt guilt in enjoying her pain while also being moved by it.
Ugly was her rise, to her ugly fall. Ugly was the heroin in her veins, the possible subconscious suicide. Ugly was the alcohol addiction. Ugly was the loneliness. She was beautifully ugly.
That’s why I thought she was smoking hot.
Only Academy Award-nominated director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) could properly capture the beast that was Joplin. While working on Blue since 2006, she concurrently knocked out five other documentaries. Blue boiled on the back burner, simmering towards al dente. The film had some setbacks due to lack of funding and resources but she never gave up hope. She had moments of feeling lost in the material, but after eight years, she completed the documentary and time capsuled the legend.
Amy Berg tells Interview Magazine why she picked Janis. “Well, why not Janis? [laughs] Janis deserves to have a proper film about her. I think that her legacy up to this point has been more about her death than her life, and I wanted to make sure people got the full sense of who Janis was as a woman, as a rock star. She was the first woman of rock ‘n’ roll, essentially, and she broke through so many different walls to pave a path for women to walk on today. She had a direct impact on the women’s movement in a different way than we talk about in history. She was a feminist without having to say she was a feminist.”
Blue has a great feeling of organic storytelling and timing. Berg says, “I wanted it to feel like a concert”. Blue feels like a vinyl-come-to-life experience through its imagery and sonically invigorating ballads. It’s a ride through the tumultuous life of Joplin, making a pit stop at the Monterey Pop Festival with a seductive performance of “Ball ‘n’ Chain”, then declining down the mountainous highway to “Little Girl Blue,” towards the end of her life.
Joplin has osmosed into my Spotify rotation. Her music is held with the regard of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and of course, my baby’s mother Amy Winehouse. When I’m playing some Joplin, I forget I’m listening to the person. While moving through the subway tunnels of New York City, it’s as if the music takes me on tunnels of its own, a place where there’s an ambrosial eternity for a moment.
Janis: Little Girl Blue was my first hit of Joplin. And now I’m hooked.