I’ve sometimes wondered about how long Janis Joplin (1943-1970) would have had any voice, had she not ODed at the age of 27. Maybe all that shrieking was not destroying it, since her least hard-rock songs were on her posthumous record “Pearl”, including those that begin and end the 1974 rockumentary compiled by Howard Alk of some tv interviews and concert footage from, among other venues, the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. (I had not known that Big Brother and the Holding Company appeared in either legendary festivals.)
The movie, which was nominated for a Golden Globe as best documentary, opens with a look at her car (a psychedelically painted Porsche 356C that now belongs to the Whitney Museum in New York City) to the sound of “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Banz?” and closes with an array of childhood snapshots to the sound of “Me and Bobby McGee,” her best-selling single. Without timing them, it seemed that almost a third of the movie comprised of three renditions of “Ball and Chain” and two (studio and live performance in Germany) of “Summertime” with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Eventually, there is also a rendition of what I consider her signature BB cong, “Another Piece of My Heart.” (Versions of all three are on the “Cheap Thrills” album.)
There is a painful sequence filmed at her tenth graduating-class reunion pf Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas, and some comments in interviews about being laughed out of the town and out of the state (to become a star in San Francisco’s Fillmore Ballroom). No one asked her to the prom, she recalled. And she tried her hand at being a painter before starting to sing.There is only one brief scene of anyone talking about her, a German fan, not anyone who worked with her in Big Brother and the Holding Company or the Kozmic Blues Band, or Full Tilt Boogie Band… or highschool classmates.
There is a certain amount of autobiography from the interview clips (the longest and best, two 1970 appearances from the Dick Cavett Show). Joplin comes across as relentlessly unpretentious, sometimes witty, and having had an adolescence that justified singing the blues. She recalled first hearing Leadbelly and also praised the vocal stylings of Billie Holliday and Aretha Franklin. (If she spoke of any rock singers, it did not make it into the movie. There is a snarky passing remark about Peggy Lee, however.. Footage is included of Mama Cass marveling at Joplin in Monterey (the Mamas and Papas included a posthumous tribute to Hoplin, “Pearl” on their 1971 “People Like Us” album.
In addition to songs I’ve already mentioned, there are concert performance excerpts of “Tell Mama,” “Try,” “Cry Baby,” “Move Over,” “Maybe,” “Kozmic Blues,” “The Good Days,” of which I most like “Cry Baby” (athough I think there should be a comma in its title: it’s an exhortation to cry, not about a “crybaby”). Joplin definitely went all-out. This is especially visible at the start of an interview by Dick Cavett having just performed. Neither she, nor Jimi Hendrix, who also died at the age of 27 a few weeks before Joplin burned out from their vigorous onstage performing, but from heroin overdoses (the cause of death for Jim Morrison who died the next summer are less certain).
In sum, undernourished a biopic, but the closest viewers can get to seeing Joplin perform full=tilt her only speed seemingly).