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There’s more to Janis Joplin than tragedy

Janis Joplin arrived at her 10th high school reunion dressed for the stage.

The counter-culture icon donned rose-colored glasses and purple and pink boas in her hair when she returned to Port Arthur, Texas, in August 1970, hoping for a warmer acceptance than what she remembered from her gawky adolescence. Weeks before the event, she appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show,” saying that her former classmates “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state.”

“Janis, this is a group of people coming to see people, not stars. Just be yourself,” Laura Joplin remembered telling her big sister in 1992’s “Love, Janis,” noting that it was the feathers in the singer’s hair, in particular, that bugged her.

There was a scheduled Q&A with reporters on the day of the reunion, where the press harped on the differences between Joplin and her classmates. An excerpt of that interview appears in Amy Berg’s documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” which is available to watch online as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series.

Laura, who was at her sister’s side, was disgusted. “No one was up there and saying, ‘Can you believe what Janis Joplin has been able to have done?'” she told NewsHour. “[Janis] thought it could be a triumph of people being curious and applauding, and it should have been.”

A public recognition of Joplin’s achievements never really came that evening. Instead, the reunion committee presented a tire to Joplin for traveling the greatest distance to the event. Later that fall, the 27-year-old rock star died of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles.

But Joplin, the documentary argues, is more than her downfall.

Video by YouTube user LauraDOTM

Eight years in the making, Berg’s film complicates the public memory of Joplin as a cautionary tale of rock and roll excess. It stitches together archival footage, family photos and her electric performances at Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival to craft a more complete picture of an artist who wailed the blues on stage.

“I do feel that women are remembered differently than men in that realm of young stars who overdosed,” Berg told Vogue. “Men are remembered for who they were. Women are remembered for the tragedy, the loss.”

If we can remember Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, other members of the “27 club,” for more than their tragic deaths, we also owe it to Joplin.

Photo by Fantality Corp

Photo by Fantality Corp

The film incorporates a series of letters Joplin wrote home, filling in what we know about the years before her early death. Narrated by indie singer-songwriter Cat Power, Joplin’s letters reveal the joy she felt as her career gained traction in San Francisco, the psychedelic hotbed of hippie culture in the 1960s. Stories from childhood friends, siblings, former bandmates and lovers are paired with Joplin’s excitement over a recording contract and press clippings.

The documentary also doesn’t shy from Joplin’s hard drinking or drug use, although friends note that she hated her heroin addiction.

“Janis’s early death makes people think she was unhappy,” Laura said. “While I think Janis did have some unhappiness in her, she was basically a very happy person who was ecstatic with her success.”

Photo by RB/Redferns

Photo by RB/Redferns

But the longing we hear in songs like “Piece of My Heart” and “Cry Baby” also emerges in Joplin’s letters. The documentary begins with a letter Joplin had written to her family the same year she died.

“Dear Family, I managed to pass my — gasp — 27th birthday without really feeling it … I’ve been looking around and I noticed something … how much you really need. Need to be loved and need to be proud of yourself. And I guess that’s what ambition is — it’s not all a depraved quest for position or money. Maybe it for love. Lots of love!”

In another letter, she apologizes for being a “disappointment” to her family.

But Joplin’s siblings recall an older sister who was well-read, witty and had a lot to say. Michael, who was 10 years apart from Joplin, said the years in a small, oil refinery town in southeast Texas “shaped us by constrictions that we didn’t realize were there because of our parents, our upbringing.”

Michael said their parents were heavily focused on their children’s critical thinking. Dinner table conversations that centered on current events or topics like Barry Goldwater “developed us in interesting ways.”

“It was kind of a shock to everybody when we went into the world,” Michael said. “Just wearing a different badge makes you a target.”

Laura, who was six years younger, said she remembers conversations with her sister about politics, art and the latest events in New York, even though neither had been there yet. Joplin’s letters to the family also included book recommendations that ranged from from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Hobbit.”

Joplin’s problems in high school may have been a source for her music later in life, but Laura argues that it wasn’t anything too different from the typical agony of adolescence. “Several people had been crude and rude to Janis in high school, but she had not been alone in receiving their attention,” Laura wrote in “Love, Janis.”

“However, Janis had let their taunts grind deeper and deeper into her psyche, until the events were elaborately woven into her personal mythology,” she added.

Childhood friend Karleen Bennett had another way of saying that in the film: “She couldn’t figure out how to make herself like everybody else. Thank goodness.”

Janis Joplin with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in Woodacre, California, 1967. Photo by Lisa Law

Janis Joplin with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in Woodacre, California, 1967. Photo by Lisa Law

In the feminist movement’s nascent years, Joplin was the dominant force on stage, not a back-up singer. In the documentary, when Joplin is with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company and later on as a solo artist navigating the rock and roll scene, she’s often the only woman in the room. She wasn’t afraid to offer input in the studio. Her frank attitude toward sexuality was not embraced by some women’s rights activists.

“Janis was one of the few women who led her own band and was the energy on stage,” Laura said of her sister. “She was someone who led things because she was the dominant woman, she’s out there.”

On stage, the confident musician’s guttural voice stunned her fans, including, as seen in the documentary, a stunned Mama Cass during a 1967 performance of “Ball and Chain.” That festival appearance proved to be a major turning point for Janis and the band.

Video by YouTube user RollingStones50yrs

An admirer of Odetta, Bessie Smith and Otis Redding, Janis was modest about the visceral power of her voice.

“Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin. Now, they are so subtle, they can milk you with two notes,” she said in the film. “They can make you feel like they told you the whole universe.”

“But I don’t know that yet. All I got now is strength. Maybe if I keep singing, maybe I’ll get it,” she added.

The documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue” is available to watch online on the “American Masters” website.

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