Port Arthur, Texas, was like most mid-sized cities in America. Nothing overly special other than some history and actual neighborhoods families could grow up in. When Seth and Dorothy Joplin had their first child in 1943, it was nothing out of the ordinary. They would have two more children there. They would work, attend church, raise their family there. In the 1950’s, when the kids were growing up, my Great-Grandfather actually lived less than fifteen minutes from their house on Lombardy Drive.
Twenty years later that firstborn little girl would walk away from Port Arthur and head to the excitement of San Francisco, join a band and become the legend known as Janis Joplin. But Port Arthur never seemed to really vanquish from the singer’s psyche, not fully at least, and this was never as noticeable as when she returned home to attend her high school reunion. In an interview from that day, which appears in the DVD, Janis: Little Girl Blue, Joplin seemed nervous, jittery, a deer in headlights kind of uncomfortability that even Southern Comfort couldn’t quell. Port Arthur was not her friend and she was standing once again in its presence.
Director Amy Berg has tried to bring Janis to life again: the Janis who didn’t always sing, wasn’t always the star of the party, was just a girl attending school in a Texas town with a huge oil refinery in it’s backyard. And she does a whopping good job. With onscreen stories told by the singer’s siblings, Laura and Michael, and various childhood friends, personal photographs and video footage, you can feel the pulse of Joplin starting to beat. A recording of her singing an Odetta song sends chills up your spine, as it marks the beginning of Janis Joplin, psychedelic blues singer. As subtle as this was, it would only be the blink of an eye before she became a fire on fire.
“She couldn’t figure out how to make herself like everybody else,” said one childhood friend. “Thank goodness.” A high school friend who used to go with her over the state line into Louisiana to go to bars remembered her as “this little troublesome kid,” but a lot of fun to hang with. Brother Michael commented that, “She rocked the boat as often as she could. She liked rocking the boat.” As Joplin herself told a reporter who asked her what to do at one of her concerts, she replied, “Get sweaty and go with the music.”
Big Brother & The Holding Company bandmates Sam Andrew, Peter Albin and David Getz add insight into her musical and everyday personality, how she started out as one of the guys but with manager Albert Grossman’s encouragement morphed into a stand-alone entity. “I loved having Janis in the band from note one, from the first time she sang. I loved hearing her sing,” Andrew told me during a 2012 interview with Glide [he passed away in 2015]. “Plus, personally, she was a really funny person and I always respond to that a lot. She made everybody laugh almost all the time and was a lot of fun.”
That part of Joplin’s personality is on display more often than not in Little Girl Blue. Janis smiles, laughs, mugs for the camera. Sometimes in the middle of a situation which shows her face as serious, she suddenly breaks out into a big smile or goofy expression when she notices a camera. But there was a deep part of her that kept peeking through the sheen. Even though these interviews have been around for years, in this context, you notice the subtle, and not so subtle, hints of a mind swirling with deeper consciousness. She wants everyone to love one another, to think, to be bold; to feel life around them and inside them.
Berg touches on those emotions and lingers. When a friend from her early Port Arthur days remembers Joplin being voted “Ugliest Man On Campus,” he tears up talking about how much that hurt her, and we tear up with him. When her ex-boyfriend talks about loving her but having to leave because of her heroin use, you feel his ache. When the camera fails to blink when showing the room she died in, you catch your breath, because it feels and looks like loneliness. And when her letters to her parents are read in voiceovers throughout, you relate to her wanting acceptance from them.
And the music is extraordinary. All these years later, the sound of her wailing “Ball & Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 takes your breath away. No singer has ever captured that unique sound, that remarkable passion, but Berg has certainly captured a piece of her that we all can relate to.
There are four special features included on the disc: stories about the infamous Frisco clubs, the Fillmore and the Avalon; Pink, Juliette Lewis and Melissa Etheridge talk about her influence on them as women performers in another segment; an a capella Big Brother from the time of the interviews; and scenes from the Hollywood Walk Of Fame ceremony in 2013 finish out the extras.
“It was a mistake for me to go with her and it was a mistake for her to go at the time she did. She wasn’t ready yet and that was part of the problems that came later,” Andrew revealed in our interview about Joplin’s departure from Big Brother. “Then she wound up with the Full-Tilt Boogie Band, which was a good band for her. If she would have lived, they would have done some really great things.” If she would have lived.