Janis: A search for truth, joy and powerfully passionate music

Janis Joplin's life was perfect for "American Masters," filled with extreme high and lows, plus immense talent and moments of quiet subtlety. So it shouldn't surprise us that the film airing Tuesday (May3) is ... well, masterful. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Laura Joplin,
the letters were an unexpected treasure.

One day, she
recalled, she mentioned that she might write a book about her sister

“Mother got up and
she walked down the hallway,” she said. “And she came back with
these letters, literally wrapped in a faded red ribbon, and handed
them to me. And the past just rushed over me.”

Those letters became
the core of a book (“Love, Janis”) and now of a compelling
“American Masters” documentary on PBS. They showed Janis Joplin:

-- Fragile, grasping
for a place in life. “I wanna be happy so bad,” she wrote.

-- Then a sudden
rock star. “I just stumbled around being a music kid and fell into
this. Incredible.”

-- And then at the
top. “There's a real good chance that I won't blow it,” she

She soon died of a
heroin overdose, but her sister doesn't see this as the cliche of a
downward spiral.

Janis was starting
to savor life, Laura said; but, like many people in 1970, she also
did drugs. “We do her a grave injustice by presuming that she blew
it .... She had an accident.”

For Laura, this
older (by six years) sister was “the girl who read 'The Wizard of
Oz' to me and took me by the hand and walked around the neighborhood.
Those were wonderful memories.”

That was in Port
Arthur, a Texas town where their dad was a Texaco engineer. “We
grew up in a family that talked about ideas,” Laura said. “Our
parents wanted us to express them and supported them.”

Others didn't. The
film says Janis was kicked out of the choir for not following
directions. (“She liked rocking the boat,” Michael Joplin, four
years younger than Laura, says in the film.) In high school, she was
a civil-rights activist targeted by the Ku Klux Klan; in college, she
was devastated by a fraternity stunt that had her elected “ugliest
man on campus.”

But for a time,
Laura feels, college live in Austin, Texas “was heaven for her. It
was full of all these creative people. The story is she walked into
this apartment and there was a guy sitting on top of the
refrigerator, playing the banjo. And she turns to her friend and
says, 'I think I'm going to like it here.'”

Her music tastes
expanded in Austin and soon fit neatly into San Francisco. “Janis
had a career in singing a lot of folk music and folk blues,” Dave
Getz said. “And she liked people like Odettta.”

She had some false
starts in San Francisco; at one point, friends sent her home to
straighten out. But she was back when Getz's band, Big Brother and
the Holding Company, auditioned for a female singer.

“Even before she
came, (we knew) she was going tobe the one we were looking for,”
Getz said. “And when she opened her mouth and sang with us at the
first rehearsal, ... it was just, 'Yeah, that's it.'”

The band had already
been doing “Summertime,” he said; “when she started singing it,
it went into a whole other stratosphere.” She locked into blues
classics by John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf. “And then Janis
started presenting her songs. That was also a revelation.”

She gave a
powerhouse performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, but the
cameras weren't rolling; the band's manager hadn't signed film
rights. Joplin was furious and argued backstage; the agreement was
signed and the band was given an extra stage slot, preserved on film.

That “was the
turning point for Janis,” Getz said. It was when “she became more
like the star of the band and who people really came to see .... She
got tremendous attention after Monterey Pop.”

Three years and
several bands later, Joplin told Getz that she was going to call
herself Pearl. He disliked the idea, he said; she was “kind of
creating the myth of what she was about.”

But people loved
that sassy, brassy myth. When the “Pearl” album came out in 1971,
it reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart; so did its single, “Me and
Bobby McGee.”

By then, however,
Joplin had died. “She cleaned her act up and she was really excited
about her last album,” said Amy Berg, who made the PBS film.
“Things were going real well for her.”

Then the overdose
ended a bright and varied life at 27.

-- “American
Masters: Janis: Little Girl Blue”

-- 8-10 p.m. Tuesday
(May 3), PBS (check local listings)


Seriously? Postponed again?

When and if you ever get to see "Why They Hate Us," I think you'll consider it a solid, thoughtful report on a tough subject, The problem is getting to see it: Somehow, CNN has managed to postpone it for the second time. Here's the brief I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

CNN has postponed
its “Why They Hate Us” documentary ... again.

Fareed Zakaria's
film – an elaborate look at U.S.-Muslim relations – was
originally scheduled for April 11, then was bumped by political
coverage. It was re-scheduled for today (April 25).

At 3 p.m. ET today –
when the network's Web site was still listing the special -- a CNN
spokesperson said it had been bumped again. There was no word on why
it was postponed or when it might air.


Prince memories continue

TV has done a strong job of presenting memories of Prince in the days after his death. Particularly impressive was what "Saturday Night Live" did: In an empty theater, Jimmy Fallon -- a guy who loves music and musicians -- talked passionately about Prince as he introduced tapes of his "SNL" performances.

More things are being added. At 9:30 p.m. Tuesday (April 26), Fox will rerun the "New Girl" episode that had Jess and Cece invited to a Prince party. And today (Monday) and Tuesday, documentaries are on cable's AXS. They're mentioned in the final paragraph of this story (which is otherwise outdated) that I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Memories of Prince
will continue to fill cable-TV this weekend.

After his death (at
57) Thursday, MTV switched its logo to purple and focused on his
videos and the “Purple Rain” movie. News channels had clips and

Now that continues.
Here are examples from three channels:

-- VH1 will take
over the airings of “Purple Rain,” the 1984 movie that's also on
Amazon Video. The film won an Academy Award and a Grammy (both of
them for its overall score) and was nominated for a Golden Globe for
the song “Why Doves Cry.” That will be at noon and 10:30 p.m.
today (Friday, April 22), 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 9
p.m. Sunday.

-- At 8 p.m.
Saturday, the Oprah Winfrey Network will rerun an “Oprah Winfrey
Show” interview. In 1996, Winfrey visited Prince's Paisley Park
studio in Minneapolis.

-- AXS reruns a
“Rock Legends” hour on Prince and has the TV debut of a
documentary, “Slave Trade: How Prince Re-made the Music Business.”
Those will be back-to-back at 1 and 2 p.m. ET Saturday and at 8 and 9
p.m. ET Tuesday. On Monday, “Legends” will be at 7 p.m. and
“Slave Trade” at 11.


"Hear My Song" won't be heard (or seen)

When I saw an advance screener of "Hear My Song" last week, I had mixed feelings. The music was magnificent; so was the direction by Francois Girard. The story, however, was often preposterous.

Still, I couldn't have guessed what would happen next: CBS and "Hallmark Hall of Fame" pulled the film, replacing it with reruns. I could grumble about the poor job they did of getting this information to reporters and viewers. More interesting, however, are the reasons behind the move. Here's the story I sent to papers Monday morning:

By Mike Hughes

Two dependable
forces, CBS and “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” left TV viewers
perplexed Saturday.

That was when the
movie “Hear My Song” was replaced by reruns. The reason involved
accusations of sex-abuse at the American Boychoir School, decades

None of that was
covered in the film, a fictional tale of a hard-scrabble kid who was
transformed by music. “Song” was directed by Francois Girard –
an art-film favorite since the 1993 “Thirty Two Short Films About
Glenn Gould” -- and co-starred Oscar-winners Dustin Hoffman and
Kathy Bates.

But it revived anger
from people who had seen officials try to duck responsibility for the
abuse. The school settled some cases (one for $850,000), filed for
Chapter 11 protection and moved twice.

Created in 1937 in
Columbus, Ohio, the school (Grades 4-8) had thrived near Princeton.
Its choirs sang for several presidents and Pope Paul VI and backed
Beyonce at the Academy Awards.

In 2002, however,
the New York Times wrote: “A dozen alumni from the 1960's to the
1980's described a pattern of sex abuse ... by two longtime
choirmasters and nine other staff members.”

The choirmaster
resigned and the school tried to have the blame confined to its
employees or to the boys, for not reporting it. Eventually, it sold
its campus and moved twice, now to Hopewell, N.J.

All of this is
unfamiliar turf for “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” which tends to be

It began in 1951 by
commissioning the now-classic mini-opera “Amahl and the Night
Visitors” (which, ironically, starred an American Boychoir
student). Then came Shakespearean plays and a switch to original
movies. Hallmark has said the 1986 “The Promise” is “the
most-honored dramatic special in television history,” with Emmys
and Golden Globes, plus a Peapody, a Humanitas and a Christopher.

There have been
three and four films a year, usually pointed to a greeting-card time;
“Hear My Song” -- three weeks before Mother's Day – stood out
for “Hall of Fame” as:

-- A return to a
broadcast network, after some years of being confined to the Hallmark

-- A film not
produced by Hallmark. Originally called “Boychoir,” it had a
brief movie run in 2014; Hallmark bought it and dubbed it “Hear My
Song,” which is also the title of a 1991 film.

Then the backlash
began. Although the school in the film is fictional, it was patterned
after American Boychoir School; some of Boychoir's students are in
the cast and its choir provides the soundtrack. “Song” was shown
at the school, to launch a fundraising campaign.

Last week – too
late for TV magazines and many daily papers – the film was pulled.
“Hallmark was recently made aware of serious allegations of
misconduct made many years ago at a school similar to the one
depicted in the movie,” an announcement said. “After careful
consideration, it was decided that the movie will not air on CBS,
Hallmark Channel or Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.”

The school responded
with its own press release: “Our students and their designated
faculty and staff are being unjustly punished for events that
happened long ago and do not reflect our school today. Our boys ...
are justifiably proud of their work on this movie and our community
shares that pride.”


Hurd's harrowing world -- zombies after us, aliens amonst us


At one end of her career, Gale Anne Hurd was making now-classic movies, led by "Terminator" and "Aliens." At the other, she's fuelling cable with "Walking Dead" and now "Hunters," which debuts on Monday, April 11, and reruns daily. She's a sci-fi master ... erasing all those early doubts. Here's the story I sent to papers:

(Very interesting TV
story on Gale Anne Hurd and her new “Hunters” series. The show
debuts tonight, but reruns every day this week, with new episodes on
Mondays; story works any time, print or Web.)

By Mike Hughes

For decades, Gale
Anne Hurd has filled our screens and minds with everything form
aliens to zombies.

“She's a legend in
the business,” said Julian McMahon, a villain in her new “Hunters”

That status didn't
come easily. When did Hurd first realize she had made it in

“I think it was
when I did the production deal with Fox,” she said. That was the
studio, she said, where executives had once asked: “How can a
little girl like you do a big movie like this?”

Those doubts came
three decades ago, when sci-fi seemed like a male toyland. Now Hurd
has mastered it with “Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Tremors,”
“Alien Nation” and more.“She is someone who is responsible for
my favorite films of all time,” Natalie Chaidez said.

Chaidez (the “Twelve
Monkeys” producer) had been contacted by Hurd to adapt “Alien
Hunter,” a Whitley Strieber novel in which the aliens hide inside
human forms.

“It's a conspiracy
that's just around the corner,” Chaidez said. “It's a conspiracy
that touches you physically, and I think that's something that's very
much in our culture right now.”

Sci-fi is good at
that, Hurd said. “It examines an issue that is very prevalent, but
does it through aliens.”

Perplexed by this is
Flynn, an FBI agent who is moved to the Exo Terrorism Unit after his
wife is kidnapped. Until then, he didn't know there was an ETU ... or
that there were all-powerful aliens; he also didn't know that his ETU
colleague Regan is actually an alien, working to stop her fellow

Regan doesn't fit
into either side, something actress Britne Oldford understands. “It's
about being different,” she said. “As a mixed woman in the
entertainment business,” she knows the feeling.

Being mixed-race was
just part of it when Oldford was growing up. “I was definitely a
big, old nerd,” she said. “I'm kind of an outsider and I observe

She grew up in
Toronto, studied dance and theater, then had regular roles in four
cable series – comedy (“Skins”), drama (“The Divide”) and
scares (“American Horror Story” and “Ravenswood”).

And if you still
haven't heard of her, that's OK. Hurd cast “Walking Dead” without
familiar stars and saw it zoom to the top of the ratings; she's
pretty much done “Hunters” the same way.

“We like to cast
on the basis of auditions,” she said. “A lot of name people don't
like to audition.”

So she chose Nathan
Phillips as Flynn and Oldford as Regan. “She's very tall and
elegant,” Hurd said. Also, “her dance background helps a lot”
with a character who has cheetah-like quickness.

The exception to the
no-name trend is McMahon, already a star from the “Charmed” and
“Nip/Tuck” series. “It's amazing, his commitment and
dedication” to the fierce role, Hurd said.

Chaidez points to
the wild changes in McMahon's hair (“the subject of great
controversy during the shoot”) and to his nearly nude scene. “When
he took off his shirt, the cast swooned.”

For Phillips and
McMahon, this is a return to their homeland. Both grew up in
Australia – where McMahon's father William was prime minister in
1971-2; both have lived in the U.S. for years.

And for Hurd? “It's
a lot of frequent-flyer miles,” she said.

She prefers to be on
the set, which isn't easy with four series -- “Evil Dead,” its
prequel, “Hunters” and the upcoming “Falling Waters” -- being
filmed this year. Then again,she's seen tougher situations.

Hurd had grown up in
Palm Springs prosperity, daughter of an investor. She didn't learn
about Stanford's film program until her junior year, but took some of
the classses while getting a degree in economics and communication.
A former faculty member asked her to work for Roger Corman's
low-budget film studio. “I thought I would be a secretary or an
administrative assistant.”

Soon, she was also
the marketing director and a production manager and more –
sometimes working 20-hour days, she said, for $180 a week. Corman
“believed in equal opportunity,” she said, with bright women and
men getting big responsibility and little money.

One of those was
James Cameron. Their relationship may have crept into his scripts for
“Titanic” (rich woman, penniless guy) and “The Abyss” (couple
working toghether after their marriage crumbles).

She became a
co-writer on his “Terminator” script, a producer on his “Aliens”
and, soon, a producer on her own, now filling our heads with zombies,
aliens and humans in crisis.

-- “Hunters,” 10
p.m. Mondays, Syfy, rerunning at 1 a.m.

-- The opener (10:06
p.m. April 11, rerunning at 1:13 a.m.), airs often. That includes 11
p.m. on Wednesday and Friday (April 13 and 15) and 11:30 p.m. Sunday
(April 17). Also, 6 a.m. Thursday and Monday (April 14 and 18), 8
a.m. Saturday (April 16).