Cast & Crew
A documentary about the life and musical career of Jimi Hendrix.
Along with the personal stories, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend speak of him with respect and more than a little awe for his abilities as both a guitar player and a showman. But the portrait that comes out is of a modest artist with a passion to create music and a gift for creating something new. "The effect he had on English musicians, not just guitarists but all musicians, was just phenomenal," proclaims Clapton. Townshend is even more effusive in his praise: "I think in many respects he changed the sound of rock far more than the Beatles.... Jimi changed the sound of the guitar, he turned it into an instrument." The archival footage of Hendrix includes clips from his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show soon after his controversial electric rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Appearing without his band The Experience, Cavett introduces him as "a naïve and inexperienced Jimi Hendrix." It's a joke but it comes back more seriously as those closest to Hendrix describe him as a man too trusting of everyone around him. "He was so gullible," laments Clapton. Experience bass player Noel Redding and Hendrix' manager Michael Jeffery turned down interview requests but Mitch Mitchell, the Experience drummer, offers a dissenting opinion: "He was not a naïve man."
The focus, however, is on the music, which dominates the production. Along with clips of Hendrix from the films Monterey Pop (1968) and Woodstock (1970), we see filmed performances from The Marquee in London from March 1967 (originally filmed for the British music program Beat Club), The Fillmore East in December 1969 (from black and white videotape), Berkeley Community Centre in May 1970, and the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival (later preserved in its entirety in the 1991 concert film Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight), plus an acoustic solo on 12-string guitar filmed in London in 1967. In a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, filmmaker Joe Boyd insisted that the film "is not by any means a biography of the man; it's an impressionistic film. Our first chore was to show his music, and if we could also get a feeling of what the period and Hendrix were like, that was a bonus; but basically it's a musical film."
Jimi Hendrix is "A Joe Boyd / John Head / Gary Weis Production." Boyd had produced records for Fairport Convention and Maria Muldaur and had been involved with the distribution of the short film Experience (1968) featuring The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He became interested in producing a feature-length film after Hendrix's death and started securing interviews. John Head was head of research for the film and Gary Weis, who worked as a cinematographer on the rock documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), is credited with the films "visuals." As Boyd explained to Rolling Stone, "The film was done on a three-way democratic system between me and Gary and John." Weis went on to direct music videos, short films for Saturday Night Live, and the original rock mockumentary The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978).
Warner Bros. was reluctant to produce the film. Woodstock had been a major hit but subsequent rock documentaries and concert films had not found success. They gave it the green light thanks to encouragement from the Warner record label and the film broke house records when it opened at the UA Westwood in September 1973.
By Sean Axmaker
Behind The Making Of 'A Film About Jimi Hendrix', Judith Sims. Rolling Stone, November 8, 1973.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
A Film About Jimi Hendrix on DVD
This result comes from taking the subject seriously but still keeping the sense of playfulness so crucial to Hendrix. The film is nothing more or less than a series of talking head interviews describing Hendrix's life in pretty much chronological order with musical performances interspersed throughout. This approach is so simple and so often an excuse for laziness. The key to Jimi Hendrix's success is that compliers (there are no credited directors) Joe Boyd, John Head and Gary Weis found and interviewed the right people. Sure Mick Jagger was apparently included for little more than marquee value but Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend more concretely describe how Hendrix hit the British rock scene. Even better is Hendrix's one-time girlfriend Fayne Pridgon who was an interviewer's dream: smart, insightful and relentlessly chatty. Providing more than platitudes are Hendrix's father Al, buddies Arthur and Albert Allen, former employer Little Richard and bassist Billy Cox. Running through the film are excerpts from Hendrix's appearance on the Dick Cavett Show where Hendrix was amused and open, leading Cavett to meet him on his own terms.
Giving depth to the film - indeed showing why we care about Hendrix in the first place - are the performance clips, nearly all presented complete as they should be. (It's amazing how many documentaries on music or musicians don't have this respect; Ken Burns for instance frequently chopped up performances in Jazz.) Despite being of interest on their own, the way the performances are integrated into the film is what ties it together. The opening credits feature "Rock Me Baby" from the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and you could hardly find a better summation of Hendrix. The music is straight blues in structure but with riffs pulled out to the front, the voice-like guitar wails from decades of blues jolted by electricity and the beat agressively syncopated. As a film clip, though, you can see how thoroughly Hendrix had assimilated show business techniques. He assumes theatrical poses, turns body movements into guitar distortion and generally makes a grand production of the song.
Other clips show different aspects of Hendrix while also expanding the interviews. A propulsive "Johnny B. Goode" features almost no performing frills but just Hendrix playing and singing like this was his story and he wanted no distractions. An acoustic studio performance on 12-string guitar shows him moving closest to conventional blues which Hendrix treats almost as a meditation (though it does reveal his tentative technique on acoustic). And after interviews discussing Hendrix's reaction to life as a celebrity comes a deeply heartfelt "Like a Rolling Stone" that matches Bob Dylan in a way few other performers could. But this give and take from interview to performance does show the film's limitations. At core, it's basically what is sometimes called a "life and times biography" where the exploration of Hendrix as an artist is mentioned only in superlatives or broad statements. For instance, which music was he playing during his early days? What did he listen to? In what specific ways did he develop the guitar style? How did technology affect his playing? It's easy enough to guess what he learned from Little Richard and Ike Turner but left unmentioned are T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy and other precursors. (If you're interested, some of this is covered in Charles Shaar Murray's landmark book Crosstown Traffic.) The film does tackle, though a bit too briefly, Hendrix's thoughts and shifting status about race and its complex relations in American music, something more obvious with Hendrix because he was in many ways an outsider no matter where he went.
Still, Jimi Hendrix remains a fascinating film. The DVD transfer can't clean up the grain of the original footage but that hardly matters. The lack of film damage or fading shows that enough care went into the DVD that this is probably the best it could be. Bonuses include a performance of "Stone Free" at the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival, a short look at how a song was mixed in the studio and an hour-long collection of more interviews that's a nice supplement to the main film.
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by Lang Thompson