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Big Brother and the Holding Co. with Janis Joplin - Nine Hundred Nights Print E-mail
Tuesday, 24 February 2004

Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin - Nine Hundred Nights

Eagle Vision
MPAA rating: NR
starring: Peter Albin, Sam Andrew, David Getz, James Gurley, Janis Joplin, Nick Gravenites, Lenny Kaye and Ellen Willis. Narrated by Rip Torn
release year: 2003
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture: Four Stars
reviewed by: Jeff Fish

Here’s the story of how Big Brother and the Holding Company, one of the most influential bands from the 1960s, got its start. Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service were the first bands to make it from San Francisco. These were the bands that help develop what would become known as the San Francisco sound and get it exposed to a national audience. Long stretches of music intertwined with a liquid light show mixed with large doses of the LSD experience would go a long way in this new art form called psychedelic rock (or acid rock). For those of us who grew up in the Bay Area in that era, all these bands – along with the Beatles, the Doors and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, to name a few – were ones that we ended up identifying with in our youth.

But two of these bands had something different, very different. These were Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Jefferson Airplane. While the Airplane had Grace Slick, who had an incredible sardonic and biting wit about her, Big Brother had Janis Joplin, who simply put was the best female blues singer of her generation and perhaps the best ever. This documentary is chock-full of great performances by Big Brother and Janis. There are four complete songs in the special features section of the DVD: “Down on Me,” “The Coo Coo,” “Ball and Chain” and “Piece of My Heart.” These songs really go a long way to demonstrating the essence of Big Brother: edge of your seat excitement mixed with a sense of danger that no other band had. Prior to Joplin joining the band, Big Brother was getting a nice following of their own and becoming one of the house bands at Chet Helms’ new establishment, the Avalon Ballroom. But Big Brother knew that they needed to get a lead singer, so they began to hold auditions. Helms became aware of this and recalled a singer that he heard in San Francisco in the early ‘60s.

You would think that once everyone heard Joplin sing, they would all just be beside themselves, but that really wasn’t the case. You see, Big Brother was a band before Joplin joined them and not everyone thought it was a great idea to get a woman singer. In this documentary, you get firsthand knowledge of how the band actually felt about that. All of the remaining members are still alive and interviewed for this release, which also includes a very rare audio-only recording of “Hall of the Mountain King” by the band. These were four very different musicians with four very different backgrounds. The two guitar players, for example, couldn’t have been more different from one another. Sam Andrews came from a more learned and studied background, where he knew exactly what a C#m7 chord was and James Gurley merely played what he heard in his head. He didn’t really know chords, but he didn’t really need to, either.

Big Brother’s big breakthrough was also the beginning of their downfall. The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was the coming-out party for the “now generation.” This was the festival where America was going to get its first look at the new youth of America: Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds were supposed to headline the festival. And while they might have actually headlined the festival, the festival was won over by the bands that were not known nationally. Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, the Who, the Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were the ones that really won over the crowd. Within a week, all these bands were playing at national venues and Big Brother had just obtained the final piece in their puzzle. Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's manager, had just signed Big Brother. He asked the band who they wanted to record for, one simple phone call was made and a deal with Columbia was set. You would think that was the hard part, but in all actuality their troubles were just beginning. Capturing the raw essence of the band was much easier said than done. Months of internal wrangling in the studio and bad press were beginning to break the band apart. But the one album that they did make was a really distinctive one, “Cheap Thrills.” Cheap Thrills would eventually end up at Number One on the charts, but the moment had passed. There are some poignant moments in the interviews with the remaining band members that underscore the belief that something truly special was lost.

After Big Brother recorded its one and only album for Columbia and did a subsequent tour, Joplin was gone, literally and figuratively, and that was a loss for us all. Overall, I liked this DVD; musically, it was right where I expected it to be. I definitely would recommend this DVD to anyone who enjoys psychedelic music with an emphasis on the blues. Big Brother’s music was always full of excitement and fear, joy and pain and some of the best damn vocals you’ll ever hear.


more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby Stereo/DTS
aspect ratio(s):
4:3 (Full Screen)
special features: Complete Performances of: “Down on Me,“ “The Coo Coo,“ “Ball and Chain” and “Piece of My Heart“; Audio-Only Performance of “Hall of the Mountain King”; Discography; Photo Gallery; Biographical Timelines; Interview Outtakes
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