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Janis Joplin
Janis Joplinvia Wikimedia Commons

How does the Janis Joplin documentary compare to Amy?

The fierce doc has already garnered comparisons to the powerful portrait of Amy Winehouse – how does it stack up?

Long before Amy Winehouse, there was Janis Joplin. Also known as the Queen of Psychedelic Soul, she became big in the 60s. The searingly raw emotion and hard edge of her vocal style paved the way for other women in rock, though she overdosed just a couple of weeks after Jimi Hendrix at age 27. Amy Berg’s engrossing new documentary Janis had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this week.

Eight years in the making, it paints an intimate picture of Joplin’s upbringing in a small-town Texas where her unconventional looks and affinity with bolshy lads, as well as her uncommon pro-integration stance where there were still KKK chapters, saw her unrelentingly bullied and deeply scarred. A blinding musical talent combined with a need for validation to propel her onto the stage. From her sensational rendition of Ball and Chain at Monterey Pop to footage from her 1970 high school reunion and recollections of her string of painful relationship break-ups, the doc shows many sides of this complex and original woman. So how did Berg pull it all together?

Are you worried about comparisons with Asif Kapadia’s Amy?

Amy Berg: Everyone’s talking about that but it’s a very different film. Amy was influenced by Janis, obviously. Every female pop star today has some connection with Janis Joplin in the evolution of their musical career. I don’t know if worried is the right word because I love documentaries, and I didn’t watch Amy until I had locked my picture. I saw Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and the Nina Simone film (What Happened, Miss Simone?) at Sundance this year and I was so inspired to make this movie better because I thought they were just so well done. This is a great year for music documentaries.

A number of films have come out recently about members of the so-called “27 Club”, but you avoid sensationalism. Was it hard to decide how much to include in regard to her drug addiction?

Amy Berg: I did the film to dispel this myth. I don’t like to see Janis lumped into a cliché term like the 27 Club and I think it is interesting that the legacy of the men in the club is very different to that of the women. For Janis to be remembered as a woman who overdosed on heroin in a hotel room rather than as an amazing performer is kind of a disservice to all of us. That’s unfortunately how she died, but that wasn’t who Janis Joplin was. I wanted the film to show who she was as a woman and an artist. I always pull myself back from anything that would land in that area of sensationalism so it wasn’t that challenging. Finding the balance of how much personal information to share, how much performance footage and give an experience that felt honest was always important. I’d been working on it for so many years that I was very hard on myself in the edit because I wanted it to be right. She deserves that. She was basically the first female rock star and I think she was a groundbreaking woman.

“Janis did not respond to labels, and I think she would not have identified as a lesbian or bisexual. She was Janis and she had so much love and passion inside of her that she loved who she wanted to love when she wanted to love them” – Amy Berg

The film shows she had relationships with both women and men but doesn’t go too directly into discussing sexual orientation...

Amy Berg: Janis did not respond to labels, and I think she would not have identified as a lesbian or bisexual. She was Janis and she had so much love and passion inside of her that she loved who she wanted to love when she wanted to love them.

Did you come across obstacles in terms of people who didn’t want to talk about her?

Amy Berg: I couldn’t find females of that time who wanted to put themselves on camera in this context and I thought that was a little bit strange. Especially Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane, who also paved the way for women in rock), who I met at an art show and kept trying to get her to talk to us. She just said nobody wants to see me looking like this and she’s beautiful, you look at her when she’s 25 and you look at her now and there’s no comparison. I tried with so many other powerful women of the time and so we’re left with what we have.

There are comments by female musicians of today about her only during the end credits. Did you consider involving these more throughout?

Amy Berg: Those women were influenced after her death, they weren’t part of the story. I didn’t want to take the audience out of the story. As much as I would love to share certain points that they made, it didn’t feel right. And I did try it a couple of times.

How did you enlist Cat Power as the voice reading from Janis’s letters?

Amy Berg: I wanted the perfect person and I really did not know who it was. I didn’t want anyone to just impose any agenda into the letters because they were Janis’s letters. I was listening to an interview with Chan Marshall and I just knew instantly that she was the right person, and it happened very quickly. She’s an amazing performer. She comes from the South and left her family early, so understood that sense of abandonment that her family must have felt. This is a very common thing in the South. Chan’s take on Janis’s family dynamic was that she left her family and there was this feeling that she had betrayed them. That’s why Janis kept writing these letters to them, trying to stay connected.

Can you imagine if Janis lived today in the era of social media?

Amy Berg: If you look at today’s generation with social media everyone is trying to get validation in a different way today for how they look, it’s about how many likes you get on Instagram. Janis was trying to get validation herself but it was only finding the true Janis inside that liberated her from that dark past of hers, finding something more of substance than putting your body on display to see how many people will like it.