Michael Bergeron
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Janis doc opens HCAF

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The Houston Cinema Arts Festival unwinds films that celebrate visionaries in the performing and literary arts. That covers a lot of ground. Spread out amongst diverse venues that include The Aurora Picture Show, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the downtown Sundance Cinemas Houston, as well as art installations and live performances on the patio at Brasil Café (1709 Westheimer), redubbed She Works Flexible for the festival, the Cinema Arts Festival has become an annual event that’s calendar worthy.

Programs of shorts, documentaries and features will astound audiences for the next eight days (November 12 – November 19). The festival launches with the regional premiere of Janis: Little Girl Blue, an amazing documentary about Janis Joplin from filmmaker Amy Berg.

Berg has helmed documentaries that transform life itself. Just look at West of Memphis (2012), a scathing examination of the wrongful imprisonment and the eventual release of three teens who spent nearly two decades in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. Or a hard look at sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church, Deliver Us From Evil (2006).

From the press kit Berg states: “Janis Joplin was – and still is – a force majeure in music, a rock and roll pioneer beloved by millions nearly 40 years after her death. Watching footage of Janis performing remains nothing short of mesmerizing.”

Berg has worked over eight years on her Janis documentary. “I had down time while I worked on other projects. There were so many rabbit holes we went down,” Berg says in a phoner with Free Press Houston.

DENMARK - APRIL 19: Photo of Janis JOPLIN; Janis Joplin, posed, smoking cigarette (Photo by Jan Persson/Redferns)

A lot of time was spent reviewing archival footage with the end result being footage of Joplin never seen before. That includes film shot by noted documentarian D. A. Pennebaker of Joplin recording “Summertime” in a studio setting. Another previously unseen clip has Janis playing acoustic guitar and singing “Me and Bobby McGee” to the Grateful Dead that was recorded for the film Festival Express. “The performance of “Me and Bobby McGee” is something that we found in our research and has never been seen before,” says Berg.

Festival Express was released in 2024 but chronicles a 1970 train rock tour that included Joplin, the Dead, The Band and other rockers on a tour of Canada. Likewise the original 1970 release of Woodstock didn’t include footage of Joplin, who personally thought it was a bad performance. Yet the subsequent 40th anniversary disc release included Joplin’s act. “That was Albert Grossman,” Berg says about Joplin’s high-powered manager. “He would not allow the footage to be used for the original release.”

The scenes of Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company from the Monterrey Pop Festival were shot by Pennebaker, but in reality it was actually a reshoot. The group had played on a previous day but Pennebaker, who was documenting the prototype rock festival, had not captured that segment of the show. It was so electrifying that it created a buzz and the producers scrambled to get her a return slot the next day so that it could be recorded on film.

As Joplin’s career arc ascended she acquired new bands, first the Kosmic Blues Band, and then with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. In the film Joplin declares: “With Full Tilt I can change something in the middle of the song, and they’re right there.” All this and more is covered in the course of Berg’s portrait of Joplin.p807871801-3-579x420

We know she had boyfriends like Pigpen (Grateful Dead), Country Joe McDonald, Kris Kristofferson, but Berg records Dick Cavett hinting at an intimacy shared by himself and Joplin. Cavett is a gentleman and as such he doesn’t come out and just say it, but his comments contain the truth of the relationship.

Joplin appeared frequently on Cavett’s talk show. In one clip included in the film he asks her if she’s been back to her hometown of Port Arthur. Joplin says she hasn’t but she’s going back for the first time in a long time for her 10th anniversary high school reunion.

“Do you want to come?” asks Joplin.

Cavett replies “I don’t have many friends in your high school class.”

Without missing beat Joplin says, “I don’t either.”

Berg weaves incidents from Joplin’s life to form a heartfelt biography of a woman who came alive before an adoring crowd only to retreat into heroin when the show was over and she was left alone with herself. Joplin had kicked drugs at one point and was in a semi-steady relationship with a guy she’d met in South American while on vacation. We all know how this story ends. Joplin died of a drug overdose on October 4, 1970 at the age of 27.

Janis: Little Girl Blue takes its title from a Rogers and Hart song of the same name. We watch Janis singing the song over the end credits. In the same credit roll Berg cuts to a clip from Dick Cavett’s show where John Lennon is talking about the death of Joplin.

Berg includes shots of a train speeding down the rail intercut with dynamic footage of Joplin live in concert. Later in the film the same train shot is seen in reverse. This was Joplin’s life; constantly accelerating forwards and backwards while the world was standing still.

There’s also subliminal humor in Berg’s choice of shots. Like an early establishing shot of Port Arthur where we pan from the harbor to a city sign that lists the population at 66676. If you look at the latest 2024 census for the Golden Triangle city Port A has a current population of 54135. That’s how many people have left Port Arthur after Texaco and Gulf shut down production in the 1980s and the economy of the town went south.

— Michael Bergeron