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HEARING THE LONG-LOST VOICE OF THE HIPPIE BLUES

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

We have gone through phases where the musical biopics were all the rage. Jamie Foxx earned an Academy Award for his near-flawless embodiment of Ray Charles in “Ray” all the way back in 2004. A year later, Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for his turn as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” with Reese Witherspoon snagging the Best Actress prize for her portrayal of June Carter. The trend seemed to tail off with Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown from “Get on Up” and the tag team action of Paul Dano and John Cusack bringing Brian Wilson to life in “Love & Mercy” last year.

Filling the void of these narrative feature explorations came a need and desire to capture a more unvarnished truth through documentaries. At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I rocked and rolled my way through “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” “Miss Sharon Jones” (about the indomitable spirit of the lead singer of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings as she fought a serious cancer scare) and “Janis: Little Girl Blue.” This year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature was Asif Kapadia’s illuminating exposé into the tragic fall of the extremely talented singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse in “Amy,” which found itself in competition with Liz Garbus’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

“Amy” earned distinction not only for its blistering look at all of the factors involved in Winehouse’s inability to maintain and sustain her sobriety as the fame demon overtook her, but also for the impact and evocative use of personal and archival footage to construct the narrative. Kapadia was able to let Winehouse largely speak for herself throughout the film, a stunning and insightful move predicated on the notion that, early on, those closest to Winehouse began documenting her every move, almost as if in anticipation of her meteoric rise.

That film stands in unique contrast to Amy Berg’s “Janis: Little Girl Blue.” Berg, a celebrated documentary filmmaker (an Oscar nominee for “Deliver Us From Evil” in 2006), working without the footage net afforded to Kapadia, faced adhering to a more traditional approach to her examination of the evolution of Janis Joplin. Musical clips proved plentiful, which would allow the haunting power of Joplin’s persona to shine through. She came alive in performance, giving in to a freedom of expression that was like a fiery tongue scorching the ears and souls of her audiences. Surprisingly, none of the impact is lost in watching that somewhat fading footage; Joplin’s spirit is enduring.

The truly stirring and engaging aspect of the film though is the presentation and representation of Joplin’s voice; from the collection of letters she wrote to friends, family and her many musical collaborators during her rise up the ranks. We get to hear her insecurity, her concerns and doubts, the seemingly fleeting moments of real joy behind the scenes that she was felt comfortable sharing. Berg wisely chose musician Chan Marshall (AKA Cat Power) to narrate these segments, and Marshall does more than merely read the words; she interprets them like songs, seeking to capture the subtle nuances without resorting to aping Joplin. She takes on the hurt and the slights, setting us up to understand how all of this sadness piled up on Joplin and led her to the end we know will come.

I found the reading of those letters more unsettling, in some ways, than even hearing and watching Winehouse towards the end of “Amy.” Both of these women were immensely talented, and hellacious demon dogs, as well, hounded them. Fame is, no doubt, a killer. Yet, due to the narrative performance of Cat Power, I believe we have the chance to document the rise of another star; one who will be in position to learn from experience of an elder. Cat Power sings the words of Joplin, but her interpretation will be all her own. Long live the blues.