The 27 Club is a select few. Jimi Hendrix died at that age just weeks before Janis Joplin; Brian Jones and Jim Morrison in the same era; Kurt Cobain much later, and the appropriately-named Amy Winehouse more recently. Most of these died because of drug or alcohol abuse.
But was it actually the substances that killed them, or something deeper down?
Dogwoof – pretty dependable for quality documentaries – have retraced Janis Joplin’s life, using a mix of archive footage, new interviews and letters to her family, read by Cat Power.
It is a tragic and ironic tale: bullied and misunderstood at school, the very things that caused her pain and feelings of disconnection were the same that caused her to sing the blues with enough feeling to make it on stage. But, despite the adulation and success, that feeling of worthlessness never went away. It’s a tale often told.
Director Amy J. Berg traces Joplin’s early life from notes in scrapbooks, which reveal how insecure she was about her looks. And being voted by frat boys as “Ugliest Man on Campus” must have screwed those feelings down into the foundations of her soul.
Hearing blues singer Odetta’s music – and discovering that she could sing like her– started Joplin’s career, and moving to San Francisco gave her a like-minded community, who would nurture her rebellious streak.
From there, and boosted by the huge exposure given to her Monterey Pop Festival performance, she charted a course toward a gold record.
One of the most telling scenes is when a camera records a reunion at her High School, the source of her problems. Despite all the success, her insecurities are all too evident.
When the audience knows how a story ends, you need to get them involved, make them want the ending to be different. Berg tells the story clearly, but could have edited more judiciously. At 103 minutes, several scenes of sitting around in studios could have been culled, some replaced by interviews or letters that explained where her family was when she needed them and how often they were in contact.
Fortunately, that is partly addressed in the 35 minute of bonus features – along with a wonderful story about Hell’s Angels that should also have been in the main feature.
Joplin hurtled to destruction with the speed of a bullet train, only a few stops slowing her down. This biopic rides with her on that journey, showing both her raw, headstrong vivacity and her brittle fragility. But it is just as much about bullying and the lifelong damage that kids can do to others.