American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
She never would have become a singer if she'd set out to be one, Janis Joplin tells an interviewer in "Janis," but it sort of happened by accident: "I got into it because some of my friends were into it, and I found out I could sing, and it was fun, you know? And now that I'm successful, I don't go around wearing cardboard eyelashes and playing Vegas. I'm still true to myself, and honest."
And she was. That, more than anything else, comes through strongly in Howard Alk's "Janis," a documentary that tells us little enough about the biographical details of Joplin's life, but shows us a great deal of her talent, her personality and her suffering. The film has been made frm existing documentary footage, ranging from "Woodstock" outtakes to a videotape of her appearance on Dick Cavett's program. No other footage has been added, no more recent interviews or recollections. So the fact of her death in October, 1970, is never mentioned, but it remains a sobering memory in the theater, coloring even the happiest moments in the film.
The portrait of Janis Joplin that emerges in the film is one I wouldn't have quite expected. I know her only from her records, from a few articles and from reviews of the two recent books about her, and that knowlege adds up to the notion that she led a tortured, harrassed, unhappy existence.
Apparently, she did. It started with an unhappy childhood in Port Arthur, Tex., and ended with an overdose. But the Janis talking to interviewers in the film, or doing a recording session, or upstaging Cavett, is a warm, witty and intelligent person who sees herself clearly and with something approaching amusement.