Interview: Michael Joplin
Though Janis Joplin’s surviving siblings don’t occupy huge amounts of screen time, Michael and Laura Joplin’s presence brings a new dimension to Amy Berg’s new documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, premiering tonight on PBS
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Directed by: Amy Berg
American Masters, PBS
Broadcast premiere 8 pm, May 3
By Katherine Monk
“I think everyone can relate to Janis,” says Michael Joplin of his late, now-legendary, sibling. “It’s not just women. Everyone can relate to the trials and the struggles, the joy and the sadness, and the amount of work it takes to be who you want to be.”
And though she was only 27 when she passed away on October 4, 1970, Janis Joplin was a fully realized artist. A blues-rock songstress who chiseled her initials into the marbled hallways of the American psyche, Joplin and her music continue to linger in the popular imagination – proof of which can be found on PBS Tuesday night (May 3), when American Masters presents Janis: Little Girl Blue, a new documentary on Joplin directed by award-winning director Amy Berg (West of Memphis, Deliver Us from Evil).
Featuring new and candid interviews with bandmates, former lovers, fellow musicians and surviving family members, Janis: Little Girl Blue doesn’t reinvent or rediscover the Joplin story, but close to 50 years after her death, it succeeds at pulling her off the cross of celebrity martyrdom, and lets her be a person once more.
“You know Janis put it all out there so people could see it. She let it walk right out there on stage and made it obvious. It was a journey for her,” says Joplin, speaking on the phone from his home in the Southwest.
“But she wasn’t a dour person or anything. She was hilarious. She was a wonderful woman who liked to have a good time. You know, she made friends. She was having a ball.”
Joplin says too often his big sister is portrayed as some depressive introvert—a melancholic turned tragic. But when he thinks back on the heady days of the psychedelic parade, it was anything but bleak.
“We went to see her a couple of times and that was freaking awesome. I was a teenager at the time — a wannabe hippie, and in Texas at the time that was pretty radical, even just a wannabe hippie was pretty weird.”
You know Janis put it all out there so people could see it. She let it walk right out there on stage and made it obvious. It was a journey for her…
Yet the younger Joplins – Michael and his other sister, Laura, both of whom are featured interviews in the film – were inspired by their big sister’s success.
“Laura and I and our parents went to an Avalon Ballroom show in San Francisco. That’s a piece of history. And I got to run the light show. It was totally cool. But we were always outsiders. We were not part of the music. We were family.”
And there’s a significant difference between the two. Family has to live with loss and cope with grief for the rest of time. It never goes away. But it does change.
Joplin says he and Laura have been moving through different landscapes for the past four decades. “It’s been hard to do the internal grieving. For us, it was all so public. I’m sure my parents never got the opportunity. You know, they passed before they had the chance. But Laura and I do it privately amongst ourselves – so it’s odd to talk about it with other people but it’s cathartic at the same time.”
Michael and Laura Joplin do not have vast swaths of screen time in Berg’s documentary, but their mere presence in the film adds a dimension that’s been lacking before because we see Janis as part of a loving whole – something lost to the Brontë-styled revisions.
“My parents exposed us to a lot of different forms of expression. They were very open to a lot of different ideas, and when something was wrong, they urged us to act on it,” says Joplin, who’s been blowing art glass since the 1970s.
“They presented us with a lot of culture, music, theatre — all the arts — on a regular basis… Our mom was a huge show tunes geek. That’s where Janis got Summertime – we’d listened to the soundtrack for Porgy and Bess a million times. And Janis brought it into the studio and said ‘I think we can do this one.’ And she did…”
Joplin says Janis was a true blues singer, someone who had her own idols in Odetta and Nina Simone. “She was in awe as much as anyone else.”
Our mom was a huge show tunes geek. That’s where Janis got Summertime – we’d listened to the soundtrack for Porgy and Bess a million times.
No doubt it was Janis’s ability to absorb the blues, internalize them, and express them as her own that made her the icon she remains. It may also account for the unprecedented degree of protectiveness that she still inspires in her old bandmates and beaus, some of whom reveal new insights and precious memories.
David Niehaus was one of Joplin’s last lovers, and Berg captures a complexity of emotion in his segment – almost becoming de facto confessor to those who still bear some intangible burden of guilt.
“I had never seen David Niehaus… and if you watch him, he is still protective of her, decades later. And if you listen to Dave Getz, I mean he’s crying. Every guy, actually, every person became protective of Janis. And it’s so wonderful to see that in all these people. It moves me to see what kind of impact she had.”
Ask Joplin what impact his sister had on him, and he pauses.
“She made me want to be an artist. She was incredibly talented at drawing and painting and I wanted to be just like that. I thought it was pretty cool…”
Ask Joplin about the big picture – and his sister’s glorious stab at personal meaning through unapologetic expression – and he gets a little nervous about what I’m going to write.
“This is taking an odd turn,” he says, laughing. “But here I am talking to you – all these years later, which is pretty weird. But that’s the beauty of it: That we are still listening to the music and talking about her. But everything has a price. That’s what I understand now. Good things have a price. And bad things have a price. And you have to be willing to pay them. So, taking care of Janis’s legacy has been an incredible honor. I’m moved by it and I take great pride in it,” he says.
“The cards were dealt. And they were played out as successfully as they could: She was the right person at the right time in the right place. Everything came together… until it fell apart.”
Janis: Little Girl Blue airs on PBS at 8 pm-10pm, Tuesday, May 3, 2016.
Photo (Top): Big Brother and the Holding Company drummer Dave Getz and Janis Joplin, circa 1967. Courtesy of PBS American Masters. Photo (Below): Janis Joplin from the cover of Pearl.
THE EX-PRESS, May 2, 2016