Janis: Little Girl Blue - Raw Greatness and All Its Conflicted, Emotional Energy
A Night with Janis Joplin has just completed its North American tour. The play, a biographical "musical journey," reveals one undeniable truth. Even 46 years after her death, Janis Joplin's life and work connect with audiences. People still want more. A recent documentary does its best to offer additional perspectives into the life of the rock-blues performer.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is a brilliant - and sad - portrait of the tragic and legendary singer. Watching Janis Joplin on stage is upbeat, thrilling, and outright mesmerizing. Joplin came to life on the stage, and her screaming blues medleys captivated audiences throughout the world during the late 1960s. The documentary captures not only the fantastic performances of Janis Joplin - incredible time capsules of an era from long ago - but also the singer's personal life, sad life to be sure. Depression, alcohol use and drug problems plagued Joplin until her tragic death in October of 1970.
The Audience-Musical-Emotional Connection
Passion and timing are two traits that immediately reveal themselves when listening to any classic Janis Joplin tune. "Me and Bobby McGee" is a perfect example of how she would raise and lower her pitch to get the lyrics' maximum impact. Listening to the studio version of the song nay draw fans into the strange romance of the song. The stage version brings all this to the next level. Joplin can power forth incredible emotion in the song that the song's tale comes to life on stage. It comes to life through Joplin and helps create a connection with the audience. Singer, song, and the audience all come together to experience the music at the moment. In the documentary, there is a clip of Don Adams mocking Joplin's method of on-stage catharsis. He didn't get it. He wasn't all that important.
"You know you got it if it makes you feel good" is a classic line from Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." Music comes to life emotional in this song - and all great Joplin songs. While she may not have been able to articulate the emotions and experiences academically, Joplin knew what to do when she went on stage. In the 1960s, music had to make a better connection with the audience since you had a singer, a stage, amplifiers, and people out in the chairs. All the modern technological/marketing nonsense designed to pre-package and sell banal music and promotional images did not exist in those days.
Raw emotion and power cannot be manufactured. A powerful connection between the singer's feelings and the audience derives from the singer's ability to convey those feelings effectively and moving. Joplin did this with every nuance and essence of her voice.
Again, manufacturing emotions seems impossible. Sadly, the origins of the feeling have their dark edge.
An Ugly Shadow
Janis: Little Girl Blue does not shirk away from the more ominous and painful aspects of Joplin's life. No one should be surprised that internal pain contributed to substance abuse. The documentary casts light on a truly awful, unfortunate, and avoidable incident in her life.
During her college years, Joplin was named "Ugliest Man of the Year" by a fraternity. The sickening "award" was even noted in a college print publication. Joplin was torn apart and devastated by the incident. The effect lasted and lingered consciously and subconsciously for the remainder of her life.
What would possibly possess "educated" men to do something so mean-spirited, so vicious, and so cruel? How could a group of men be so lacking in empathy to ignore the immediate and long-term psychological harm implications of doing such a thing? Did these men not have a modicum of moral grounding or self-control?
Regardless of these questions' answers, the men were allowed to get away with something so horrible. And Janis Joplin had to carry the cruelty with her through life.
Janis' painful past appears to extend beyond the college days. The documentary shows a visibly shaken Joplin being interviewed at her 10-year High School reunion. She clearly had no fond memories (responding "no comment" to one innocuous and inane question) and is uncomfortable being interviewed. Even after ten years, Joplin could not forget the problems she experienced in school. Attending the reunion brought back a flood of painful emotions she wished she could have kept locked away inside.
Those emotions were coming out in her tragedy-centric lyrics and performances. In a brutal sense of irony, the horrible pain she kept inside fueled her dynamic singings. Without the pain, her songs may have lacked the added dimension necessary to elevate her talents.
The painful emotions fueled the alcohol and drug problem intended to numb those issues. Substance abuse eventually led to her death. Loyal fans should never glamorize or dismiss this devastating aspect of her life. Dwelling on in a lurid manner isn't the right path either.
Janis Joplin still lives on through her music, which is both an uplifting and downbeat reminder of the cost of emotional brilliance.