In an era when rock and roll was dominated by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin broke through as one of the top female singers of the 1960s with her potent, soulful vocals and relatable personality.
Though, on the surface, Joplin inspired millions of female fans with her independent style and ferociously confident stage presence, offstage the singer used her hard partying to mask an aching desire to find a companion. A heroin overdose led to her death at the age of 27 in 1970.
The meteoric rise and all-too-young death of Joplin were ripe for the Hollywood treatment. But 45 years after her passing, a biopic still hasn’t been made about the artist.
But it’s not due to a lack of trying.
For decades, numerous projects and actresses have attempted to make films about Joplin’s life and career, only to fail miserably. Some of that had to do with the filmmakers not having the proper rights. In other cases, the actresses attached could no longer keep their schedules open for a movie that never seemed to have a start date, or they aged out of the role.
‘Joplin,’ 20 years on
One producer has stayed the course to make the first-ever Joplin biopic.
Peter Newman, who was a freshman in college when Joplin died, has been working on a movie about the singer since the late 1990s. At the time, he and his producing partners were working with Sony’s TriStar division on the project after the studio accumulated an extensive set of exclusive Joplin music and life rights. But biopics then weren’t as attractive as they are today. So not seeing much in the way of box-office dollars or gold statuettes in their future, Sony shelved it.
In the early 2000s, Newman teamed with a group of investors to buy the project in turnaround from Sony. And thus began the quest to make the film, titled “Janis,” independently.
“There’s sort of five legs to the table to get a film like this made,” Newman told Business Insider over the phone last week. “One is rights, another is a script, you need a director, of course a star, and the final thing is money. I’ve had a combination of all those over the last 20 years, but never all five [at once].”
Newman can’t keep track of all the actresses who have been involved. But he doesn’t have to because the internet is flush with reminders of his attempts over the years.
Lili Taylor, Pink, and Zooey Deschanel have all been attached at one time. Then there are the Joplin projects that Newman isn’t involved with that have had the likes of Brittany Murphy, Renée Zellweger, and Amy Adams attached (more on the latter shortly).
Joplin’s legendary status has motivated multiple concurrent projects to keep going. But Newman’s trump card is the nature of the rights he holds, which would likely make his project feel more authentic than any other.
Newman doesn’t just hold the Joplin life rights and the rights to 21 of her best-known songs — he also owns the life rights to Joplin’s old band, Big Brother and the Holding Company (there are two surviving members), the life rights to Joplin’s close friend Peggy Caserta (as well as the rights to a book she wrote about her time with Joplin), and the rights to a collection of letters Joplin wrote to her friends and family.
In total, Newman said, he and his partners have invested over $2.5 million in the Joplin rights that they have accumulated over the last 20 years. To put that in perspective, the total cost to make and deliver to a distributor the 2005 Oscar-nominated film that Newman produced, “The Squid and the Whale,” was $1.5 million.
But that didn’t sway music producer-turned-screenwriter Ron Terry from getting his own Joplin biopic off the ground. In November 2014, it was announced that he had attached director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Amy Adams to star in the project titled “Get It While You Can.” But the film hit a speed bump when Terry was sued by the film’s producers in March for breach of contract.
“It is possible to make a Janis Joplin movie without portraying a majority of people in her private life and a majority of her music,” Newman said. “But in my mind it would be deficient and I can’t conceive how it would get done.” (Attempts to reach Terry for comment for this story were unsuccessful.)
Finding the ‘real’ Janis
“You can’t force this. I want a movie to make us really believe all her different complexities,” said filmmaker Amy Berg, who knows a bit about trying to capture the true Joplin. Her documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue” is finally being released in theatres this Friday after eight years of work.
In fact, Berg used the services of Newman to get a few people who knew Joplin to talk for the film. The letters Berg features in “Little Girl Blue” are the same ones Newman has the rights to (he was happy to allow Berg to use them in her film).
A number of hurdles kept the doc from completion, Berg says, including finding a backer and working out the rights for footage to be included in the film. But she admits the biggest struggle was finding the right actress to be the Joplin voiceover. Though most of the film is made up of archival footage of the real Joplin, for the Joplin letters, Berg needed someone with a voice close to the real Joplin.
“I would get suggestions from all the agencies, and some of the singers that I interviewed for the film wanted to do it,” Berg said. “I couldn’t find someone that didn’t have — I hate to say chip on their shoulder — but there’s a certain kind of energy that would go into reading these letters that had an agenda attached to it.”
It wasn’t until March of this year that she came across singer-songwriter Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power).
“I showed the movie to Chan’s band and they told me they thought it was Janis reading the letters,” Berg said.
“The image of Janis dims with age, so seeing Janis up there blew me away,” Janis’ sister Laura Joplin told Business Insider of the Berg film. Laura and her brother Michael handle Janis’ estate. “I hope I feel the same way when a narrative film about her comes out. I hope one gets made. Janis has been important for women and I hope whoever does it allows that aspect to be shown.”
Berg is happy she went the documentary route to highlight Joplin. Namely, because of the wealth of archival material at her disposal.
She recalled the time she was offered the opportunity to make a biopic of another musician who died young, ’90s singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. But after going through his archive, she declined to do it because she thought the best way to tell Buckley’s story was as a documentary.
“I would always lean toward doc in these circumstances,” Berg said.
The Joplin biopic gets some good news
Newman, however, has never been motivated over the past two decades to pivot to nonfiction.
And that resilience may have finally paid off. It appears that Newman finally has all five legs he needs at the same time.
This week, Newman disclosed to Business Insider that he has secured a $20 million budget for “Janis” through financier Start Motion Pictures (which just bankrolled the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt sci-fi thriller “Passengers“). Respected British production company Film 4 (“12 Years a Slave”) has also come onboard.
Durkin is currently in the UK working on the script with British playwright Clara Brennan. The plan is to make neither a traditional “cradle-to-the-grave” biopic nor a wholly unconventional work in the style of Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs,” but something possibly in the middle. According to Newman, a start date on the film shooting has been set for August 2016.
After dozens of scripts thrown into the waste basket and millions spent on development costs, Newman remains unwavering in his dedication to the Joplin project. He attributes this to the usual “moral obligation” to his investors, but when pressed further, the answer he gives is very simple:
“I never give up on a film.”
Millions of Joplin fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Watch the “Janis: Little Girl Blue” trailer:
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.