Straightening Up Janis Joplin

Why does a new documentary downplay her lesbian relationships?

Jae Whitaker with portrait of Janis Joplin.
Jae Whitaker with portrait of Janis Joplin in Janis: Little Girl Blue.

Courtesy of Olivia Fougeriol/Disarming Films

Myra Friedman would have loathed being left out of Amy Berg’s new documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue. Janis Joplin’s publicist; confidante; and, with the 1973 publication of Buried Alive, her first serious biographer, Friedman was nothing if not proprietary when it came to the long-ago friendship that figured so prominently in her life. When I knew Friedman during 2010, her final year, she was weakened, bruised, and thin from breast cancer. “I’m not dying,” she said after a coughing fit, catching my glance. She still had a commanding honk of a voice, which must have worked well to keep reporters in line when she worked for Albert Grossman, the legendary manager of Dylan, The Band, Joplin. But now it tended to tire itself to a whisper.

“Eh, I’m Joplined out,” she told me, accepting my apology for using so little of our many interviews in the New York Times article I wrote on the 40th anniversary of the singer’s death. But she wasn’t Joplined out, not really, and after the article came out, she texted me to come over for more talk at the apartment on 14th Street that still drew light from a plump, Victorian-style table lamp Joplin gave her for Christmas 1969. She told me to stop recording only two or three times (the names wouldn’t mean anything here anyway), and she was candid, tough, funny as hell, abrasive, and exhausting. “Better you than me,” one of Joplin’s old band mates said when I mentioned I’d visited her. I enjoyed every minute of Myra Friedman, who loved telling her stories, and who I think back on more often than I ever expected to.

I certainly thought of her after seeing, twice now, Berg’s new film, which on Friday expands its limited theatrical run beyond New York, and which will air in February in PBS’s American Masters series. The film has gotten mostly good reviews, if few outright raves, hamstrung as it is by a conventional PBS format and the familiarity of its archival material. Joplin left behind precious little film, and most of it—with this documentary’s glorious exception of a drunken, altogether magical impromptu performance of “Me and Bobby McGee”—has been hashed and rehashed in previous documentaries; TV shows; and, of course, on YouTube. Berg wasn’t blessed with stored-away treasures like those that transformed our idea of Kurt Cobain in Brett Morgen’s Cobain: Montage of Heck. And unlike Asif Kapadia and Amy, Berg wasn’t first in line to her party.

I found Janis: Little Girl Blue wanting not because of the music it can’t discover or the footage it can’t unearth, but because of the life it won’t imagine. Berg’s Joplin—which, we can assume, met with the approval of the singer’s siblings, Michael and Laura Joplin, who participate in the film—follows the conventional narrative: the girl whose heart was a legend, hurt by one man after another. Laura Joplin tells Berg’s camera that Janis fled Texas to get away from the “angry men who liked to pick on her.” A horrendous experience at the University of Texas at Austin, where a fraternity voted her Ugliest Man on Campus, leaves no doubt about her sister’s assessment. Janis saw no beauty in her own acne-scarred face.

But think about that other word in the fraternity’s arsenal: man. Joplin was wearing Beatnik garb back then and not the feminine version of skirt, stockings, striped shirts, and beret. Her clothes were masculine; her affect, a friend says, that of “one of the boys,” rowdy and brawling. Can we really understand the bullying without at least contemplating her sexual, yes, maybe even gender, identity? After all, she fled Austin’s angry men for a gay bar in San Francisco, where she met Jae Whitaker, the girlfriend she was soon living with. Whitaker shows up briefly in Berg’s film, before ceding the narrative to a litany of boyfriends, particularly the ones who can be documented in the sweet, prim, approval-seeking letters home that fueled Laura Joplin’s 1992 memoir Love, Janis, the two stage musicals it inspired, and in large part, this documentary.

But even Whitaker gets more screen time than Peggy Caserta, whose voice we hear for a minute or so, discussing heroin and “the great social experiment” of Woodstock. Though she’s identified on screen as a friend and lover, nothing in Janis: Little Girl Blue reveals that Caserta’s relationship with Janis Joplin—smacked-out, messed-up, ill-defined, and inconstant as it was—lasted longer than all the boyfriends combined.

In fact, the film gives more heft to a fellow named David Niehaus, who lands pride of place as the man who might have changed everything. They met on a beach in Rio de Janeiro during the final spring of the singer’s life, when Niehaus helped Joplin through the grisly process of kicking heroin—and, by other accounts, getting Caserta out of her system. Niehaus, transformed into Frederic Forrest’s stalwart, shiny-armored hero who couldn’t save Bette Midler in The Rose, tells Berg he wouldn’t abide Joplin’s drug use (she’d relapsed), and that a telegram he’d sent her (“meet you in Katmandu anytime … ”) waited unopened at the front desk of her hotel the night she died. If only she’d read it!

Other biographies, like Alice Echols’ Scars of Sweet Paradise (a book Friedman damned as so much politically correct revisionism), tell a fuller story: of Janis complaining that Niehaus was “determined to turn me into a schoolteacher’s wife”; of Niehaus bolting when he found Joplin in bed with Caserta; of a new man in Joplin’s life named Seth Morgan, whom she considered marrying (“Yes, she loved him,” Friedman said, “for five minutes”); and of the planned three-way involving Joplin, Morgan, and Caserta that fell apart that last night, when the famous third got stood up. Janis: Little Girl Blue turns away from that story and all the potential outcomes it contained.

So back to Friedman, a woman who’d been witness to a 1960s most of us can only dream of. She was a regular at Max’s Kansas City and the Fillmore East and El Quijote, the bar next to the Chelsea Hotel where Joplin met Patti Smith and rock royalty got sloshed. Friedman was backstage with Joplin when the Stones played the Garden in ’69. She picked up the pieces when Joplin phoned, tearful, after a violent, drunken run-in with Jim Morrison or embarrassed by an instantly regretted liaison with a married talk show host. Friedman was not easily shocked, not during her Grossman days or later when she testified against her upstairs neighbor subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, whose footsteps I could hear when I visited. She was not cowed by cancer, and she was not cowed by Bernie Goetz.

But, oh, Friedman loathed Alice Echols. Of all the people who fueled Friedman’s grudges, Echols rankled most. I mentioned earlier that Friedman loved telling stories, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s more that she was driven to plead her case in an argument that hadn’t had a taker in years. She remained furious that Buried Alive, so often optioned by Hollywood, so many times abandoned, had remained unfilmed. She blamed The Rose, she blamed Laura and Michael Joplin, and she railed against Amazon user reviews that dismissed Buried Alive as outdated, certain that they’d been planted by friends of Echols’ or followers of her queer revisionism.

In Scars of Sweet Paradise, Echols wrote that Joplin “grew up in the fifties; she could hardly have emerged unscathed by the sexual shame that haunted most people whose desires were deemed queer.” Echols wrote of a friend of Joplin’s who recalled walking in on a “lesbian orgy” in 1969, Joplin greeting him with a provocative, “This is my life now.” And Echols wrote of Caserta, at length, with respect and seriousness. “Most accounts of Janis’s life have relegated Peggy to the sidelines, but she was one of Janis’s best friends, and their on-again, off-again affair was probably the closest Janis came to having a long-term relationship. Those who are eager to heterosexualize Janis would rather write Peggy out of her life,” wrote Echols. One of those people, Echols suggests, was Friedman, described in Scars as “a single heterosexual woman who Janis might have assumed to be skittish about lesbianism.”

That’s it. To Friedman, Echols had publicly cast her as naive, even homophobic, an unthinkable insult for someone who couldn’t be shocked.

But I wondered then, and now, if Echols hadn’t provoked something else in Friedman, a questioning of everything she thought she knew about her old friend and the bond that had, in so many ways, given Friedman’s life an early purpose and a lasting, lopsided shape. She was adamant that her take on Joplin was the closest any biography had come to the truth, closer than the guarded, family-friendly version of Love, Janis, and far, far closer than Echols’ queer revisionism. Friedman once had a provision written into a movie contract for Buried Alive, forbidding a depiction of her friendship with Joplin as anything but heterosexual. When she showed me that contract, she assured me she wasn’t homophobic, just a stickler for accuracy.

And I don’t think she was lying, but I don’t believe she had a clue as to what Echols was getting at. With all her New York sophistication, her writer’s eye, and decades of reflection, Friedman still couldn’t quite fathom just how deep and dark the closet can be. She wouldn’t entertain the possibility that she’d heterosexualized Joplin so thoroughly only because Joplin had heterosexualized herself so convincingly, at least in the Myra Friedman compartment of her life. Friedman’s conviction wasn’t bigotry exactly; it was a sentimental attachment to a comforting narrative and a failure of imagination.

That, more than anything, is why I thought of her after seeing Janis: Little Girl Blue.