Today, the so-called “rock doc” has become a commercialized extension of the subject’s brand—exhaustive documentaries about bands ranging from the Eagles to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers exist somewhere between gentle hagiographies and shameless sales tools, even if a few unflattering elements are included to create the illusion of “warts and all” veracity. Back in the early ’70s, however, the idea that rock singers’ lives merited feature-length examination was such a new concept that pieces of unvarnished truth occasionally reached movie screens, especially if the subject was deceased and therefore unable to exert editorial control. Thus, Janis—a 96-minute tribute to rock legend Janis Joplin, who died several years before the film’s release—has the raw quality of unfiltered observation.
Since much of the film comprises extended performance sequences, only about 30 minutes feature actual reportage (fly-on-the-wall observations, casual interviews, etc.). Additionally, because director Howard Alk didn’t have the opportunity to capture new footage, he compiled the picture from such sources as The Dick Cavett Show and D.A. Pennebaker’s classic concert movie Monterey Pop (1968). Within these considerable limitations, however, Alk and co-writer Seaton Findlay give Janis a pleasing shape. The picture opens with Joplin’s breakout performance at the Monterey Pop festival (Pennebaker’s shots of a slack-jawed “Mama” Cass Elliot watching Joplin’s performance never get old), and then the picture proceeds chronologically through vignettes from the next two years, which ended up being the last of Joplin’s life. Janis shows its subject communing with fans, giving interviews, performing onstage, and working in the studio.
In all of these scenes, Joplin comes across as a beguiling mixture of artifice and authenticity. Her hippie affectations are silly, especially the gigantic feather boas she often wears in her hair, but the way she talks about dodgy managers and the sweet release of performance is appealing. As for the actual singing scenes, Joplin’s amped-up version of the blues is consistently powerful, even if—as the artist herself acknowledges—she sometimes substitutes volume for nuance. (In one bit, Joplin says she aspires to sound like soul greats including Otis Redding, then laments that “all I’ve got now is strength.”)
Some sections of Janis promise more than they deliver, including an anticlimactic sequence about Joplin’s visit to her high-school reunion in provincial Port Arthur, Texas; we see Joplin give a media interview but don’t see real interaction with classmates. The most revealing sequence, therefore, is probably Joplin’s studio session for her howling take on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” during which a dressed-down Joplin all but tells her guitarist to forego perfectionism because the only thing listeners will care about is Joplin’s vocal. Ouch. Nothing in Janis recasts Joplin’s image, so viewers shouldn’t expect mind-blowing discoveries. That said, the movie suggests what it might have been like to occupy Joplin’s orbit during the period of her greatest success, so the film’s historical and musical value is beyond question.