Two of the twelve music documentaries featured in the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Backbeat program this year are about iconic female blues singers: Janis Joplin and Sharon Jones.
Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015) is a posthumous look at arguably, the world’s first female rock icon while Miss Sharon Jones! (2015), the “female James Brown” is battling to keep her music alive after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2013.
The films, which had their Australian premiers at MIFF, challenge the misrepresentation and marginalisation of women in the music industry. They are also directed by award-winning women, Amy Berg and Barbara Kopple, in another industry where women struggle to get ahead.
Janis: Little Girl Blue is a nostalgic musical journey based on rare archive footage. It is laced with interviews with her younger siblings (Laura and Michael), but largely features members of her boy bands: firstly Big Brother and the Holding Company, and her later backing bands, Kozmic Blues Band, and the Full Tilt Boogie Band.
We follow Joplin’s upbringing in the small, conservative mining town of Port Arthur, Texas in the 1940s, leading to her student days at the University of Texas in the early 60s, and her debut in Austin’s burgeoning folksy blues college music scene.
The images of Joplin’s involvement in the development of the San Francisco psychedelic sound during the mid-60s are a highlight of the film; while the scenes associated with her lonesome demise in Hollywood in 1970 are melancholic.
Joplin emerged as the premier blues vocalist of the 1960s. As Sheila Whiteley wrote in Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity (2000), Joplin’s recording of Little Girl Blue (1969) offered “a new delicate and compassionate insight into blueness”.
Nicknamed the Mother of the Blues, Joplin sang to her own Southern acoustic beat and inspired other female musicians, such as Sharon Jones, to combine rhythm and blues with extraordinary soul.
Miss Sharon Jones! is a medical mix tape of the 60-year-old singer’s struggle with cancer since 2013, her loyalty to her Brooklyn-based indie label, Daptone Records and life on the road with the Dap Kings, where – like Joplin – Jones was The Girl in the band.
Jones learnt her craft as a gospel singer in church, and worked in various jobs (for example, as a prison warden), before a mid-life career break as a session backup singer for soul and funk legend, Lee Fields in 1996. Her band the Dap Kings, which formed in 2002, helped to rekindle a renaissance in funk and soul music.
Understandably, both documentaries differ in tone. Janis, Little Girl Blue laments the loss of a great talent at age 27. Joplin’s fourth (and most famous) album, Pearl, was released three months after her death from an accidental heroin overdose. It delivered a Number 1 Billboard hit with Me and Bobby McGee.
In contrast, Miss Sharon Jones! celebrates Jones as a soul survivor, who has cancer but is using music as a remedy.
Both stress that Joplin and Jones experienced marginalisation in the music industry, not only because of their gender, but also because of their appearance.
When the plain looking, slightly overweight and acne-scarred Joplin strutted her musical talent at University of Texas, she was nominated as the “Ugliest Man on campus”.
Later Joplin was criticised by feminists for exploiting her bisexuality at a time when popular culture was grappling with “the problems of image and the representation” of women. In her brief eight year career, Whitely argues, Joplin had “the balls to succeed in the brotherhood of rock”.
In a similar vein, Sharon Jones, who released her first record at age 40, was told she was “too old, too fat, too short, too black” to make it in the industry.
Yet both films hit high emotional notes. The highlight of Miss Sharon Jones! is watching her sixth album with the Dap Kings, Give The People What They Want, be nominated for the band’s first Grammy in the Best R&B album section.
Both these singers’ train-rattling, emotionally powerful voices became trademarks in an industry that prides itself on radicalism, yet silences woman from serious discussion and participation.
Radio RRR is hosting a talk on Monday 1 August from 4pm to 7pm at the Forum about Janis: Little Girl Blue and Miss Sharon Jones.