Amy J. Berg sat in the audience for the premiere of her latest documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, during the Toronto International Film Festival and enjoyed seeing the reaction to the moments of levity — the woman who shouted out in agreement when Janis Joplin talks about men always dangling a carrot and the laughter when talk show host Dick Cavett was coy about his relationship with the legendary singer.
Berg is known for powerful documentaries such as the Oscar-nominated Deliver Us from Evil about pedophile priest Oliver O’Grady and the three wrongly convicted teens in her retrial-that-never-was West of Memphis. In her newest project on the legendary blues-rock icon who died in 1970 of a heroin overdose, she handles the material it with a gentle hand, revealing a warm, fun-loving and endearing side of a talented artist who self-destructed at age 27.
With the blessing and production advice of Joplin’s siblings Michael and Laura, Berg had access to a treasure trove of audio and video footage, including some in the studio shot by Monterey Pop documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and a telling interview at her 10-year high school reunion in Port Arthur, Texas. There are also interviews with Joplin’s family, childhood friends, boyfriends, bandmates and musical colleagues. But what gives Janis: Little Girl Blue its special insight are precious personal letters Joplin wrote home to her family, narrated by Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) to help tell a complete story.
The 107-minute film was produced by Berg, Alex Gibney, Jeffrey Jampol and Katherine LeBlond with film score by Joel Shearer. Berg is currently talking with domestic theatrical distributors about a deal, then it will go on American Masters.
Billboard sat down with Berg in Toronto to discuss Janis.
Billboard: It makes a big difference to a film to having the cooperation of the estate. What did that open up for you?
Berg: I am very fortunate because the estate was very cooperative with me. They basically opened their vault to me and they helped me to get the music rights and they trusted me; they didn’t come into the edit bay. They let me do my thing. So I don’t know how you could do a music doc without the estate, to be honest, because they have to sign off on the music.
I saw that Jimi Hendrix film that year. I couldn’t do a Janis film without the music. There’s no way. Three years ago I was here with West of Memphis and the Tim Buckley story had the same situation. We remember our artists for their music so you can’t really tell their story accurately without the music.
It can’t be the first time the family has entertained a documentary on their sister?
Well, no, but we’ve been walking this path together now for seven years. That might have been the first time they were considering doing it.
What was important to them in telling their sister’s story and what was important to you?
We had some meetings early on and I was very moved between the letter exchange between Janis and David [Niehaus]. So for me, that […] was a reason that I wanted to do the film, along with everything else, all those amazing songs and performances and the access to all the personal letters of the woman, not just the pop star. You’re asking how I got hired on to do this job or how we started collaborating — I did a trailer with what I could find online. They looked at that and we had some meetings and Laura said the first thing I did she felt like I understood Janis.
Was there anything they were uncomfortable with showing?
No, there wasn’t. Michael was 10 years younger than Janis and Laura was four or five years; I’d have to check that but they grew up at different times in the household, so after Janis passed away, they both had their processes of learning about their sister that they love and accept her for who she was over time.
Besides this extraordinary talent, what was it they told you about her that was important to get across in the film?
They didn’t really say, ‘It’s important that you say this.’ I think they just asked me how I felt about certain things and we talked about themes in Janis’ life.
She comes off as a lovely person in your film. We get that from the letters and some of the footage. No big star-fueled temper tantrums or nastiness. Did you know that before you went in or did you discover this going through the archives?
I didn’t know any of that going in. I found she was very driven. I found she was terrified of failure and she was a loving strong woman and a very vulnerable shy woman at the same time. She was a well-rounded human being. Yeah, people loved her. You can see it in everyone’s faces when they talk about her. There weren’t any sour grapes there.
Chan Marshall’s voice works as Janis. You kind of forget it’s narrated and that it’s not actually Janis talking.
I heard her doing an interview and I was just sold right away. I didn’t want someone to put his or her take on Janis. It was very important for me that that didn’t take another dimension in the film and I thought what she offers is this raw vulnerable voice and she’s not acting at all. That’s how she is. She’s very accommodating and sweet and seeking validation in her own way. And I thought it was the perfect match and she’s such a lovely woman. It was just great working with her.
So you have access to this stuff. Is there a museum? Is it in a basement? Are there boxes? What is it exactly that you are looking through?
Boxes. Photo albums. Scrap books. There is a vault in Hollywood with film reels. We scanned everything from the beginning, just scanning all the documents so we have our own little Dropbox file.
You see these letters. When did it dawn on you that you had enough to narrate a lot of her story?
It was a process. I put certain letters in as placeholders and then editing in the music scenes and sometimes you needed a bit more context so I would change that. It was always evolving. I wanted to bring her [Marshall] in at the end because I didn’t want to be married to the letters, until I was married to the cut. So she came in, I think in April or May.
It’s a really lovely way to tell her story. Can tell she came from a pretty good home.
Thank you for saying that. Yeah, she came from a middle class family that loved her. When I went into it, I had always heard that her parents weren’t supportive and that the town had turned their back on her, so I already knew that there was a dysfunction. She would have grown out of that. The relationship was mending itself in its own way. She was 27.
For a good part of the film we get a sense of who she is before we see the excessive use of drugs and booze.
The thing that I think is really important to point out is that this film, for me, because I was working on it for so long, I always try to not be heavy handed; that’s not my thing in filmmaking, even though I’ve taken on some really heavy subjects. I always try and place myself far back so you can form your own conclusions. But with Janis I wanted to do that even more so because its her life and her portrait and I didn’t want to infuse too much of what I was concluding from reading and listening. So being subtle was really important for me. I didn’t want to go into the 27 Club. I didn’t want to lump her into this category. I just wanted to just mention she was 27 and was trying to figure out the meaning of life. And for me, that was enough. And so I tried to do that throughout the film.
Why does Janis have such a legacy and influence 45 years later?
She put women in rock on the map. She literally was the first female rock star and she did it in such a strong way and we’re still reaping the benefits of that today. And I think her music is just as relevant today as it was in 1968, ’69. So she sacrificed herself in a lot of ways for women, without deliberately doing it. She wasn’t claiming herself as a feminist. But she was a feminist. But she wanted to be a balanced person and she really put herself out there and sacrificed so much for what you and I are doing today