2015 proved to be a banner year for documentaries about women in music. What Happened, Miss Simone?, about the troubled life of Nina Simone, opened the Sundance Film Festival. Summer brought the release of Amy, about the equally troubled life of Amy Winehouse, who died at the age of 27. Both films were nominated for Academy Awards but Amy took home the prize. It touched a nerve in audiences by equating the idolatry of 21st century star worship with the ravenous paparazzi whose flashing cameras hounded Winehouse all the way to her death. At the end of last year, Amy Berg's documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue played at the Venice Film Festival.
Reflecting on the lives of these three women and the trajectory of their paths from stardom to self-destruction (Joplin also died at 27), it’s tempting to find a through line for each musician’s rise and fall. Did being in the public eye awaken a dormant strain of fragility? After watching the smartly edited archival footage of Little Girl Blue, the answer appears to be more nuanced. Simone, Winehouse and Joplin each had a unique set of problems -- some internal, others external -- that they couldn’t contend with or overcome.
Berg, whose first documentary Deliver Us from Evil was nominated for an Oscar in 2006, worked for eight years with materials from the Joplin family estate to assemble Little Girl Blue, which airs on the PBS series American Masters on May 3. If anyone has insight into Joplin’s character, it might be Berg. I spoke with the director about the making of the film and why she was drawn to the musician in the first place.
The Joplin family estate held director auditions. How did you get the job?
I heard that they wanted to share their archive with somebody and allow a documentary to be made. I was very excited because I was a huge fan of Janis and I really didn't know much about her personal life or her personal story. I had a meeting with the producers and I made a trailer of how I wanted to tell the story and they really liked it.
What specifically did you respond to about Janis?
I just went to her music at many different times in my life: break ups or high points, dancing, those kinds of moments. I responded to her voice, energy and her music. It was purely coming from that. I was a fan and she gave so much through her voice that I just felt this chemistry with her music and her songs.
How did you begin to shape years of archival footage?
It was a challenge. This is my first historical archive documentary. It was just a lot of experimenting. I had a storyboard and picked the best performances and had those be the high points of the film. I wanted it to be a more ethereal concert experience more than just people recounting stories 45 years later. It was finding the right balance and trying to keep Janis' face on the screen almost all the way through the film.
Throughout the film, you linger on her many facial expressions.
She doesn't really have a poker face. You can see that in the footage. She's all or nothing. When she's euphoric, you can really feel it. And when she's down, you see that she really sits in it and is hard on herself.
Like Amy Winehouse, it didn’t seem like she had many supportive friendships with women.
That's a good point. It's something that Country Joe McDonald said to me when I interviewed him. He was talking about how she didn't really have any peers to talk with about things. She had a lot of hangers-on. She did have a couple of good girlfriends but unfortunately they were not around anymore. And she was doing something unlike any other women at the time. She didn't really have a role model.
At the beginning of the film, you bring up the topic of female beauty and Joplin’s struggle with self-acceptance.
She was struggling. I think she had body issues and beauty issues; she was scarred from her childhood. Still, she was only 27 [when she died] and so many women bloom in their 30s. I think she would have really gotten more comfortable with herself by the end of her life, which is what made it so tragic for me watching that progression.
In the end though, her art wasn’t enough to save her.
We were just saying that she didn't really find any balance in her life while she was alive. I think that she would have maybe negotiated that inequity of pain; she would have found some peace. I don't think she got there.
How does it feel to have finished the film after devoting eight years to the project?
It's weird because I started working on something else in January. I'm a little removed from how I was feeling when [Little Girl Blue] was first coming out. I did not want to let go of it because I felt it was within my heart for so long. It was very, very difficult for me after all those years to let it go. I wanted to keep working on it.
Janis: Little Girl Blue airs Tuesday, May 3, at 8pm on KQED 9.