American Masters – Janis: Little Girl Blue
Premieres nationwide Tuesday, May 3 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)
An Interview with Filmmaker Amy Berg and Producer Alex Gibney
How did you first get involved in this project?
Amy Berg (AB): I was approached by the estate. This would have been in 2007, right after Deliver Us From Evil came out. I was immediately interested, I had always loved Janis’ music. I spent about two years working with the estate but then the whole thing fell apart.
They came back to me about two years later, but we were still trying to figure out a formula for how to make it work. I met up with Alex, and he told me that COMPANY TK was actively looking for music projects and we took it from there. I think Alex is setting a great template for documentary filmmakers, really demonstrating how to optimize a project and make sure it gets done as successfully as possible.
Alex Gibney (AG): I’m a big admirer of Amy, and I’ve always loved Janis. The project was there, it was just having trouble getting off ground—it was something that definitely should have happened, but it wasn’t happening. It was being unfairly neglected, probably because Janis was a woman, and maybe her sales worldwide weren’t as big as some other bands. So my role was convincing people that this was an important story, and putting together the financing, herding the cats together to get the film made.
Aside from being a fan of the music, what drew you to this story?
AB: I think there were a lot of different aspects of her personality that appealed to me, but what really stood out was her need for validation, her need to be successful and not fail. As a woman growing up in the South in the ’40s and ’50s, it created an interesting dichotomy as she was caught between what her family wanted her to do and what she wanted to do. Her parents were eager to push her to be an individual, but they were so unprepared for what that really meant, for the world they were pushing her into.
There was conflict inside of her. She straddled the fence between being a regular Southern girl or breaking walls down, setting trends for women everywhere. If you just look at the footage from her high school reunion, you will see a woman trying to make up for something from her past. But Janis also really enjoyed her life. She was really happy once she got to San Francisco and got into her scene.
AG: I love Janis—I remember when I saw the Festival Express movie, the thing that knocked me out the most were the Janis performances. Always in the back of my mind I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if somebody made a film about her?” She just takes raw emotion and manages to project it musically, gets right at the gut.
I actually used a Janis song in my Hunter Thompson film (Gonzo). We used “Piece of My Heart” in the scene of the Chicago riots. That was a big moment for Hunter, where things really started to turn, and he saw the horror on the other side of the dream. That felt like the right song to put there—something about her scream that seemed right.
Since the estate had initially generated the idea, did you start your interviews with the family?
AB: Well, I started shooting in Port Arthur from the first time I went there, in 2008. I spoke to everyone who was still there and got an initial picture of Janis as a girl. But it was clear that the people there had a different memory of Janis than her true friends who left town. The first interview I shot was with a buddy of hers from high school, who now lives in Austin. He gave me a great sense of context for Janis as a teenager. From then on, I would just grab stuff whenever I could. I remember that we shot Dick Cavett early on, when I came through New York. But I saved the family for later—I really wanted to get a full sense of her adult life first, before I sat with them.
Her letters were crucial to the storytelling as they offered rare insight into her relations with her family and friends, and a need to be honest with herself on paper. They also showed Janis’ relationship with fame, which was honest and reeking of her need to be loved.
Her bandmates, in Big Brother, also shared honest stories about the Janis who escaped Texas and jumped into the SF counter-culture scene with bright eyes and fear.
They had a real sense of her emotional capacity as well as her anguish over breaking up the band, which was a pivotal moment in her short career.
What did you discover about Janis?
AG: Well, the key was finding the story—not just the greatest hits of Janis Joplin, but what is the story here? And it became clear that she was this shy, insecure woman, an outlier and an outlaw in her Texas town, who was deeply in need of affirmation and affection, while onstage she was so bold and brassy and kick out the jams. She was deeply scarred by adolescence, by wanting to be somebody different in a place where everybody wanted to be the same. And she was more needy than you would think possible.
AB: I was surprised by how fragile she was, and how this fear of failure was so present in her mind always. She’s so powerful, but she really thinks that she can lose everything at any second if she fails. She put so much pressure on herself as a woman and an artist. And she really tried to bridge the gap between her talent and fame and her desire to have a personal life. She was not successful at that merger, her friends continuously recount the quotes and stories about Janis making love to the audience and going home alone.
Tell me about working with Janis’ letters. Some of those have been seen before and some haven’t; how did you decide which letters to use and where to utilize them?
AB: I really wanted Janis to tell her own story, so the letters offered a rare glimpse into Janis’ quiet moments. There were hundreds of letters to choose from. They mostly had the same themes of conflict between Port Arthur Janis and San Francisco Janis. I wanted to use the moments where she was trying to connect with home, moments of self-reflection. It was a way to mark important breaks from the performances—I really wanted Janis to tell her own story.
AG: I think that was the hardest thing, to figure out the right balance for the diaries and letters with the rest of the material. And also finding the right voice. Chan Marshall has a sense of toughness, but also shyness and diffidence, that makes her readings work. I’m a huge fan, I’ve used Chan’s music in a number of my films. The timbre of her voice, she’s from the South, she has the voice of a shy poet, slightly wounded. Rather than a sound-alike, it was a “feel-alike.” She really inhabited the spirit of the character. It was a perfect choice.
How did you choose Chan to be the voice of Janis’s letters?
AB: I heard an interview with Chan on the internet, and I thought her voice sounded so much like Janis. There was this strong connection that she has—without even knowing the full history, she understood the experiences so well. She’s not an actress, she’s a singer, but I just tried to make her comfortable, and she was really easy to work with. As a singer, from the South, with some struggles of her own, she really understood it from a female rock singer’s perspective.
Alex, did you get involved with the film creatively, or really stay on the logistics and production side?
AG: Amy was the explorer—she was the one digging deep into the letters and diaries, and that was what I liked, that it was so deeply personal. I was more or less a sounding board. I put my trust in Amy, and was trying to do the best I could to help her tell the story her way, invest in her vision. I like looking at cuts, so I think I helped contribute, but within the context of suggestion. I weighed in on the different cuts; I think my strength is mostly in the editing room. But really I was trying to be helpful on the nuts and bolts.
The movie takes such a powerful turn late in Janis’ life, when she’s making the Pearl album, and for the first time, feeling like she can sing in a way that she can sustain for a real career rather than just screaming until her voice gives out.
AB: She has this shift when she gets off of heroin, and she found some confidence at the end of her life and settled into the idea that she could actually have a life as an artist. As the old adage goes, that is when she OD’d. There are all these theories about her death, but I got the coroner’s report and it confirmed that she had been clean and had two fresh wounds. Janis was known to shoot up two times when she shot up.
The most tragic part about her premature death was that she had just realized she could have a career as a singer; she wasn’t going to blow her voice out as she always presumed she would. She learned how to sing more melodically.
With every person that knew her well, you could see regret and guilt in their eyes. They were asking themselves if they could have done something different, if somehow they could have saved her.
AG: There’s this amazing moment of her playing “Me and Bobby McGee” on the Festival Express train, accompanying herself on guitar. You can see that she’s so proud of working this song out and thinking it through, then having a finished version and you see her trying out this song on all these great musicians. It’s so emotional—just as she glimpses her future, it ends. It’s a powerful musical moment, but it’s tragic in her story as a human being, that just as her future was spread out in front of her, she’s gone.
There’s also this romance that she has which seems like it could possibly have been the relationship that would have stabilized her. Was David a known character in the Janis story?
AB: It was a love story I hadn’t heard about. His name was thrown around in a couple books but never any quotes. He was her lost love. But no one had really talked to him. I tracked him down; I found him in Hawaii. He’s happily married, but he definitely considered Janis to be a love of his life.
I think in her letters to David, you see a raw, vulnerable woman, and a real sense of missed opportunity. The people close to her all agreed that he was the guy for her—he was strong enough, not caught up in the music scene; they thought he could actually handle her. And then there’s the tragic story of the last telegram from him that never made it to her room on the night she died. You have to wonder whether that might have given her some reason not to feel as alone, not to take that last shot of heroin.
What was biggest challenge in making this film?
AB: This was such a challenging story to tell. I really wanted to get right into Janis’ music, but without the childhood experiences, you couldn’t really fully connect with her. In some ways, I wanted to be more poetic and non-linear, but you can’t understand Janis without understanding those years that defined her.
And there are beautiful visuals once she’s in the public eye, but those early years, from age 16 until she gets to San Francisco, are so undocumented. So how do you tell the story of these important years? I was able to find some bits from Austin, photos, flyers, but it was really difficult. Plus, so much of the archives have been lost or destroyed. Most of the concerts we have were shot single-camera, so there’s no raw footage—whatever was in the film was what you got. The camera wasn’t always on Janis’ face when she was singing, so I had to use creative editing to make it more personal.
AG: Amy doesn’t give herself enough credit. You always go into these films where it seems like there’s nothing, and you want to tear your hair out. But then you dig and you find little bits and pieces that are helpful. She just kept digging and finding things—photos, audio—even if you expected there to be more, she found amazing stuff. The footage of Janis in the studio, recording “Summertime,” that D.A. Pennebaker shot is just incredible—those rehearsals really give you a sense of what it was like working with her.
AB: That scene, wow. She’s bringing every ounce of who she is into that chord. Her voice was really symbolic of the trajectory of her life—her voice got louder, she screamed harder and harder, just getting everything out on stage. It mirrors her life becoming more out of control. I think Janis’ voice was always a perfect representation of how fast her life was moving.