I just watched “Janis: Little Girl Blue” on DVD, complete with deleted and expanded scenes not shown on PBS, and it just caused a storm of emotions. In a bit, I have to write a proper review of it,but right now, I want to talk about it from a personal point of view, about how it made me feel and what Janis meant to me. I want to do this because I feel I represent, ins many ways, the fans who heard and saw and loved her and her music when she was alive.
The film uses interviews, photos and footage to tell Janis’s story. It begins with her childhood in Port Arthur, Texas, where she did not fit in, where she longed to be beautiful in the accepted way of the time, and where she was bullied because she could not deny her own heart. This was something that so many of us experienced then, and then when the 60’s came along and suddenly so many young people was trying to practice love and acceptance and it was OK to try to just be yourself, it felt so amazing for a time. That is what happened to Janis.
But, as the video shows, so much damage had already been done. I remember her talking about being treated badly in Texas, but I did not know the story about her being voted “Ugliest Man” on campus in her college days. That made me cry. What a horrible thing to do to such a beautiful spirit! But no one cared about spirit in those days. You were supposed to look like the cheerleaders or the sorority girls and if you didn’t, you were fair game.
But Janis had something else to offer, a great, great voice. When she began singing in coffeehouses, she found a certain amount of acceptance and a limited freedom. But it was not until the rock explosion of the late 60’s that she really could let loose and pour all her pain and all her love and everything she had into the music and give it to the audience. And the video catches many of those incendiary performances, which were like nothing anyone had ever seen from a woman before. They made Janis famous, and she loved being on that stage as much as anyone ever has.
It is a mistake to think thatJanis was never happy. She was, sometimes, very happy indeed and the footage and interviews in this movie show that. She was probably happiest with Big Brother and the Holding Company, because they gave her companionship and structure, two things she needed so badly. All she ever wanted was to be loved and accepted. When she was on stage and people were loving her, or when she was with her band and other musicians, or when she had a man in her life, she was bubbly and funny and happy.
But she was so vulnerable. You can see that vulnerability in every photo and hear it in every song. It was what made her probably the greatest blues singer that has ever lived. She could feel everything and express everything, and furthermore, she was willing to do that, to hold nothing back. But she was, as Juliette Lewis points out on one of the extra features, living that all the time and not just on stage. That meant that any little thing could crush her, that she still, as a star, felt she was not good enough. She felt that she was a disappointment to her parents, (which she was,) and that it was her fault (which it wasn’t.) Also, it was not a good time for the kind of romantic stability she was looking for among the free spirits she was a part of, and her lifestyle did not lead to stability anyway, so she couldn’t keep a relationship. Men were always leaving and she could not understand why.
It’s easy to say that all she wanted was to be loved by one man and she would have been happy, but of course that is not true. She wanted to be loved by the whole world. And she wanted to sing with all the passion she had in her. She would never have been happy if she was not performing. it was the best rush ever.
But she could not live her life on the stage. And when she traded her band for greater fame, she lost what little stability she had. I did not realize until I saw this film that she intensified her drug use and drinking at that point. But then, she cleaned up, met a man, and that might have lasted if she could have stayed clean, but she didn’t. But he gave her something that made her strong enough that even after he left she was clean for a while.
But I saw her on The Dick Cavett Show shortly before her death, and even though I did not know before watching this that they were such close friends off-screen, she obviously felt comfortable with him. She seemed so sad that night and that vulnerability was so clear that I wrote a short poem about her which included the line “Gonna die soon?”
I was right. I think she simply went home one night and thought , as she told Cavett in a private conversation he relates, “Who would care?” and decided to take one hit, and it was one too many, and we “lost” her.
Except we didn’t. Janis’ body left us, but her music is still communicating today with people who were not even born when she died. Her brightly-feathered image still floats through our minds from time to time and those of us who saw her then, whether in life or on television and film, can still hear that throaty laugh. If only she could have known how much she taught us all, how she changed things for women performers forever, and how even 46 years after she died her story was going to be making us laugh and cry and fall in love with her and her music all over again.
Obviously, it is a great documentary film to have made me feel and remember all this. I’ll discuss more about how and why in another review.maybe. But for now suffice it to say that I loved it, because it made me remember that Little Girl Blue (and pink and all the other colors of the rainbow.)