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Janis Joplin misunderstood is still Janis Joplin

My favorite Janis Joplin moment on record is silly really – just a tiny sliver of her personality captured in a couple of seconds of recording time. It’s on her best record by far, the posthumous “Pearl.” She sings a little joke song she and a couple poet friends wrote after first announcing it sarcastically as “a song of great social and political import.”

It’s just her a capella accompanied by studio handclaps: “Oh, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz/My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends.” (“Porsches” is pronounced “por-shees” and “amends” is pronounced “Aaay-mends.”) And then when her little joke “Mercedes Benz” is over after a minute and 49 seconds, comes Janis announcing “that’s it,” followed by a little laugh – a little runaway snicker that is probably the happiest single sound Joplin ever made on record.

It’s adorable. Should anyone ever doubt why both men and women loved Joplin as excessively as they did in her prime, just listen to “Pearl” – her big hit, the greatest ever cover version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and then “Mercedes Benz” with her happy little laugh at the idea of her becoming a “material girl.”

When, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the American counterculture suddenly started using the word “freak” as a compliment (or braggadocio), no one fit the bill better than Janis Joplin, the woman who loved black music as a teenage girl in Port Arthur, Texas, and was thereby summarily rejected en masse by white peers. When she went to sing in Austin, she was voted “the ugliest man on campus” by idiots at the University of Texas school newspaper.

Her complexion wasn’t perfect, you see. And, as her sister puts it in “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” she wasn’t “fine featured.”

But her passion when she sang – as well as most other things about her – was self-evident to one and all. To a dim bulb college age male of the time, nothing was scarier. So they called her ugly which really meant “completely different from every girl in town” and “a law unto herself.”

A freak, in other words. A glorious but lost and self-destructive freak as she proved over time who made some amazing music, gave amazing performances and died of a tragic drug overdose at 27 after making her posthumous record “Pearl,” the best record she’d ever make by far.

Her voice, for all its power and for all its heedless abandon, became thinner the louder she sang. Along with other conventional gifts, nature was sparing with, add a naturally beautiful voice.

But at the end of her final record, producer Paul Rothchild told her that after a life of blowing out her pipes at top volume because she didn’t really know any better and put her entire self into everything, he was helping her to use her voice. He helped her to discover that it was bigger on record when it was softer. He was pointing her toward a long career and away from the orgiastic volcano she established from place to place, festival to festival.

At the Monterrey Pop Festival, you could see Mama Cass Elliott’s and Michelle Phillips’ registering dropped-jaw amazement at her version of “Ball and Chain.” But she was frankly bad at Woodstock. “Janis: Little Girl Blue” tells us she had to be dragged out of the Porta-san after shooting up and thrown on the stage to perform. No wonder she was so bad.

The premise of Amy Berg’s documentary portrait of her is that she was essentially just a “little girl” who led a blues life. Hooey, I say. To prove her point, Berg’s big coup is a series of soundtrack quotes from Janis’ letters home read by Cat Power in her best Janis imitation. We’re supposed to believe this searching young woman is the real Janis.

I don’t believe a word of it. The real Janis was what we saw and heard on stage and on record. It’s that adorable little giggle after “Mercedes Benz.” It’s that worshipped rock star whom Dick Cavett actually seemed to understand whenever she’d go on his talk show. (He’s here, of course, but depressingly coy about suggestions of sexual congress. Whatever happened or didn’t, she’d have mocked him for that insufferable coyness, I think.)

The real Janis was her era’s epitome of a “tough rock chick” whose way of explaining her social life on the road was to tell interviewers “I’m saving the bass player for Omaha.”

The woman writing those letters home was a glorious freak trying to pretend to be normal for parents who couldn’t begin to understand her.

So much of the filming of “Janis” is rough. So is the sound. Among the roughest is the news footage of Janis going home to her 10th high school reunion in Port Arthur. What a lark, the world thought – Rock Music Queen Janis going back to the Texas backwater she’d long ago left in the swamp.

Except that when you look at the woman caught by those news cameras, she’s nothing of a sort. All the pain of those childhood and teen years had obviously come back to her. She couldn’t keep them at bay any more than she could keep emotional extremism out of her music.

The scene will break your heart. And if you don’t have one to break, it will instantly grow one for you.

Filmmaker Berg made Janis Joplin far too “little” for comfort, the way I see it. But so what?

All you need to know about this documentary is “it’s an hour and 40 minutes of Janis, man.” Underestimated and misunderstood, it’s still Janis.

Maybe the most beautiful freak of them all.


"Janis: Little Girl Blue"

3.5 stars (out of four stars)

Starring: Janis Joplin, Dick Cavett, Clive Davis, Peter Albin, Cat Power

Director: Amy Berg

Running time: 106 minutes

Rating: Unrated but R equivalent for language and some nudity

The Lowdown: Documentary portrait of Janis Joplin, legendary blues-rock singer of the psychedelic era who died of a drug overdose at 27.


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