We gave it an A-
Death is excellent at turning artists into icons, but it tends to calcify them, too—recasting messy, complicated humans as the familiar demigods of dorm-room posters and greatest-hits collections. Janis: Little Girl Blue is the latest documentary this year, after memorable takes on Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Nina Simone, to restore some of what gets lost in the process of mythmaking.
Of course, even a life as brief as Joplin’s (like Cobain and Winehouse, she was gone at 27) can’t be fully explored in just over 100 minutes. Instead, writer-director Amy Berg aims to tell the most personal story she can by giving the narrative over to the family, friends, and bandmates who knew her best. (She’s also lucky to have access to a trove of letters, voiced here by singer and kindred spirit Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power.) The portrait that emerges is one of a brash, talented girl who grew up an outcast in her small Texas town—fraternities at a nearby college cruelly dubbed her Ugliest Man in an annual poll—and developed her gale-force voice and gypsy-queen mien as armor against a world that would have dismissed her otherwise. Her romances, studio sessions, and struggles with addiction are portrayed in a style that can best be described as Behind the Music deluxe, but the true draw here is really just Janis: Sweet and wild and vividly alive, she takes a little piece of your heart when she goes. A–