Janis Joplin and Lenny Bruce put their genius (I use the term loosely, for they were both minor artists) into their lives and their talent into their work. Eventually their performances will be forgotten, except as cultural curiosities symptomatic of their times. But their lives — their crazy, undisciplined, Dostoevskian lives that devoured new experiences with vulgar greed — had the sheer excessiveness and piled-on shocks that remind us of the Marquis de Sade.
“I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin,” is the way Peggy Casería begins her kiss-and-tell book Going Down With Janis. “She was stoned blind on smack too, but the junk flowing through her veins and saturating her brain hadn’t diminished the skill (with which she made love).” Joplin’s life was like an interminable blue movie. Men, women, singles, groups, day or night, Janis took on all comers. Joe Namath was a flop in bed, she complained, but she had a high opinion of Kris Kristofferson. When the famous were unavailable, she often turned to scrawny, pock-marked junkies from the streets, and would fly into a rage if they couldn’t satisfy her — which was most of the time.
Myra Friedman’s biography of Joplin, Buried Alive, gives an equally unflinching portrait. Speaking after Jimi Hendrix’s fatal overdose of drugs, Janis is quoted as saying, “I wonder if I’ll get as much promotion as he did.” Two weeks later she too shot up for the last time and collapsed like a puppet tangled in its strings.
The lower depths of Janis Joplin aren’t even suggested, let alone shown or analyzed, in the new film Janis. While its Canadian producers might beg off and say that the film isn’t meant to be biographical but strictly a record of her stage performances (assuming the two aspects of Joplin’s life can be sharply divided), the film doesn’t even have a critical perspective about her music. Did she, for instance, get better or worse during her brief career? Myra Friedman (a close, unmalicious friend to Janis, and assistant to agent Albert Grossman) acknowledges that Janis was a disaster at Woodstock (that’s why Michael Wadleigh’s famous film included no footage of her stage performance) and that she often performed badly, accompanied by dreadful musicians with more amps than aptitude.
It has taken “Budge” Crawley a lot of time, money and painstaking negotiations to assemble the film seen here (nearly 50 other applicants were turned down by the Joplin family who held the rights to much of the material) but the result is a conservative film wholly uncritical about any aspect of Joplin’s life. All the footage (with the exception of the wellknown section of D. A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop and an excerpt from a Dick Cavett interview) is new, and most of the performances are foot-stomping triumphs drawn from Joplin’s European and Canadian tours in 1969-70 when she was happy and (temporarily) in command of herself. As a videodisc of Joplin’s Greatest Hits Janis certainly won’t be topped. But we all have a right to demand a more penetrating, perceptive view of her than this film affords.
Janis is the typically discreet, mass-media view of a public performer (misleading in that it suppresses known facts about her life) but Bob Fosse’s Lenny (starring Dustin Hoffman) is a galling, bald-faced lie.
In 1960, well before he was arrested for obscenity for the first time, Lenny Bruce supported a drug habit that cost him between $600 to $750 a week. Both his arms were shot to hell. He had to have a friend jab him in the back of his leg, six, eight, 10 times a day. Once, when he was mad at his wife, he squealed to the police and got her arrested for marijuana possession. Later, he ratted on his drug connections in plea-bargaining deals. Much of his celebrated material was stolen from others.
Lenny doesn’t tell you any of this. It passes off Lenny Bruce as a persecuted genius hounded to a premature death by a hostile and repressive society. It’s nothing new for director Bob Fosse to do something like this. He trashes up Bruce’s life the way he trashed up Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories to make Cabaret. We get sentimentalized distortions, panderings to popular prejudice, a cinematic snowjob. As in Cabaret, the film only comes to life in its nightclub sequences although the impact of the original Bruce routines cannot be recreated now: the “sick” humor is feeble, the four-letter words are commonplace.
In spite of the distortions, which serve to keep the audience on Bruce’s side, Lenny is a strangely cold, empty, unmoving experience. The truth about Lenny Bruce might have been a jolt and audiences probably would have gone home hating the hypocritical s.o.b. He wasn’t liberated; like Janis he was guilt-ridden, driven to self destruction, thus proving to all small-minded, conventional people that they were right, that one could go “too far” and pay a terrible price.
Why is it that books such as Albert Goldman’s Ladies And Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce! and Myra Friedman’s Buried Alive tell the truth about their subjects, while movies almost always cop out? Surely it’s because the men who make these films are so afraid of alienating the potential mass audience, and not making a profit, of being sued, or violating “good taste” that they decide to package films such as Janis and Lenny in glossy, salable formats. To hell with the facts: they just take the money and run.
BEWARE: The Godfather Part II. Before it had run its course, every part of me had rejected it from bladder to brain. It’s a lavishly expensive “white elephant” — beautifully crafted but what for? It has no new information about the Corleone family or American society, no sex, practically no violence, no dramatic tension, no character development, just endless amounts of environmental detail. It’s The Godfather gone “arty.” What was so deep in the original that it needed a $14 million exegesis?
John Hofsess is the author of Inner Views: 10 Canadian FilmMakers just published by McGraw Hill-Ryerson.
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