Filmmaker Amy Berg’s deeply sympathetic documentary about Janis Joplin – a singer whose shredded wail tapped reservoirs of pain – gets so much right, it feels like a major act of cultural excavation. We get a glimpse of the high-school-aged Janis’s report card (mostly Cs and Ds) and a thorough sense of the tomboy rebel who found her way to San Francisco’s hippie scene. Joplin’s flower-girl mystique is punctured by frustrated bandmates and lovers of both sexes. Best are her letters to home, voiced by Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, pushing us further inside a troubled head than most rock docs dare.
As with recent films ‘Amy’ and ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’, tragedy can’t help but loom. Still, Joplin’s drug use turns out to be more of a battle than you might have known. She’d already gotten hooked on heroin and kicked it before succumbing to loneliness (and a relapse). Berg relies too often on a shot of a train track receding, while her film tells a more complex story: Joplin wasn’t drawn inexorably to her fate but instead comes off like an adventurer with a sad, untamed spirit.