VHS: Janis (1974)

June 8, 2016 | By

Janis1974_VHS_sFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  MCA

Region: NTSC

Released:  July 1, 1991

Genre:  Documentary / Music / CanCon

Synopsis: Compilation tribute documentary on Janis Joplin featuring then-rare interviews and performances.

Special Features:  n/a




Cash-in films celebrating the life and work of a dead artist aren’t new – The James Dean Story (1957) is among the earliest tribute films that balanced archival material with new interviews, and fellow live-fast-and-die-young icon Marilyn Monroe was saluted in Marilyn (1963), augmented by footage from her last and unfinished film – but Janis appears to be a full compilation doc, assembling and interweaving footage from existing sources in a narrative that manages to let the late artist expose her own troubled past and conflicts without heavy editorializing.

A Canadian production directed by Howard Alk and written by Alk and Seaton Findlay, Janis was released theatrically (at 1:1.78) by Universal and later full screen by MCA on VHS, but the film remains unavailable on DVD in North America likely due to complex rights issues, given chunks of the footage stem from performances held by rival corporations.

It might also be a case of apathy, but the little-seen Janis isn’t a concert doc but a portrait that perhaps in a slight nod to Dean, starts and ends with imagery of a Porsche – Joplin’s convertible roadster she reportedly drove fast to escape reality. Dead of a drug overdose in late 1970, Joplin had only released a quartet of albums, yet within a roughly 4 year period, she became a sensation and a powerful voice in a rock-soul-blues style, belting out original and classic blues tunes with an incredible energy and ferocity.

Alk starts the picture with a roving camera through a car museum before holding on the fender of Joplin’s ‘psychedelic’ painted Porsche, and gently eases through a series of early interviews before the first of several increasingly long concert extracts showcase her inimitable performance style. Early extracts come from Monterey Pop (1968) and a short bit from Woodstock – the previously unreleased “Can’t Turn You Loose” – but the meatier performances lie in several pieces from Festival Express, in which major rock names and rock royalty were packed into a train that stopped across Canada for play dates, including Calgary and Toronto.

The handful of songs – all complete – are a marvelous showcase for the vocal power Joplin knew she possessed, having discovered her forceful range in her teens after singing country and folk tunes in Texas. The concert stage lighting is in many cases very high-contrast, and the camerawork favours Joplin’s physical performance style, where every movement – grand or subtle – pushes the lyrics from her relatively modest frame.

The sweetness of her character in interviews is contrasted by the volume from her stage performances, but a clip from a recording studio in which we see edited material from a “Summertime” rehearsal shows a different side – more restrained, yet still weary with the pain of little girl who was teased and tormented in high school, misunderstood by friends and family, and used music to get lost and displace herself from hauntings that never went away. Old ghosts return when reporters seek reactions and recollections of her childhood in Port Arthur, Texas.

Janis doesn’t detail issues of substance abuse, but it’s in the subtext – the close-ups of her visage using wide angles show the ravages of a hard life – that we can grasp a sense of personal woes. Her speech to a Toronto audience about never being treated right and other women getting the upper hand with men ties in with her recurring themes of being hungry for love, but she frequently surprises interviewers with honest thoughts on using music to address emotional injustice – advising audiences from personal experiences to be free, happy, self-confident, and proud.

Several extracted songs also favour strong females who demand and expect better from men as companions, friends, and lovers, and it’s that constant hunger for emotional comfort and justice that ultimately hits home in a two-part segment where Jopin performs on The Dick Cavett Show.

Still panting as she decelerates from an energy high, Joplin eventually talks about plans to attend her 10th high school reunion. After making a crack to Cavett about joining her with a camera crew, we’re shown increasingly painful footage of Joplin as she walks down the streets of Port Arthur and handles a media scrum, juggling questions she didn’t expect would dominate what she’d hoped would be a triumphant return home.

She’d hoped to impress former bullies with her popularity, artistry, and fame, but what unfolded were sharp questions where she tries rather unsuccessfully to remain diplomatic and avoid trashing her home town, and glances to sister Laura for aide when she’s at a loss for words, or knows the only answers will be stark and very unpretty.

The film’s last section shows Joplin performing in Frankfurt, Germany, twice prompting select audience members to join her and the band on stage before Alk zooms back with an optical pull out, reducing the final image of Joplin alive to a shrinking postage stamp freeze frame. The doc closes with a return to the Porsche and a montage of Joplin as a cute and then awkward child before colorized photo-stencils accompany the end credits.

In one of the doc’s last interviews, Joplin describes how Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday could convey a world of pain through two notes, an ability she hoped to achieve as she matured into a greater singer, and it’s that elegant observation made by an artist cut short before that path could materialize that really hits viewers.

Rare unused footage from Woodstock was later integrated by director Michael Wadleigh in a director’s cut in 2009, and footage from the Festival Express was assembled in a riveting eponymous doc in 2003 by Bob Smeaton and Frank Cvitanovich. Joplin’s hard life formed the inspiration for Mark Rydell’s glossy but dreary fictional tale of a hard living singer in The Rose (1979), but her life story was ultimately profiled in Janis: Little Girl Blue, Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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