Jimi Hendrix as a title could go either way. In one respect it suggests a definitive record, everything you could ever wish to know; in another it could de deemed as a focus solely on the man himself, a personal portrait. In truth this 1973 documentary is neither, though it does come close to achieving the latter. Released only three years after Hendrix’s death, there’s a proximity to its subject which helps immensely. Amongst those interviewed are various contemporaries, collaborators and ex-girlfriends, none of whom are seemingly coming to the film with ulterior motives. Their recollections are free of the myth-making qualities and Chinese whispers which generally character retrospective documentaries and as such are perhaps purer, perhaps closer to the truth.
The focus is on Hendrix from the time he became a musician. We begin when he was still a paratrooper, though clearly his military record is of no interest to the filmmakers. Instead they concentrate on the bands he played during this time and the musicians performed with thereby setting up a narrative thread which continues with his becoming a sideman to the likes of the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, and concludes with his eventual stardom. There’s no relating of “significant” childhood events, no rose-tinted voice-over (there’s no narration of any kind, in fact), no cod-psychological bullshit.
Of course, a documentary on Hendrix could conceivably head off into a number of areas. Such a piece could probe the music of the time and influences both on and created by the guitarist. Another could perhaps consider the era as a whole and Hendrix’s place within it, whilst another still could use his position with the white rock fraternity as a means of analysing more racially centred issues. Once again Jimi Hendrix proves difficult inasmuch as it can’t quite be defined as any of these (there’s no theoretical backbone or core discussion), yet pleasingly it touches on all of these to varying degrees and offers its own insights. The musical side of things, for example, is never dealt with on the level of telling us how albums were recorded or how songs were created, but does give pride of place to lengthy, uncut performances from various key events. Outtake footage and more familiar pieces from the likes of Monterey Pop, Woodstock and what would become Message to Love all rub shoulders with the interview material and surely hold equal, if not greater significance to the film as a whole.
Importantly, this separation also effectively frees up the talking heads to concentrate elsewhere. The likes of Mitch Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed and a wonderfully flamboyant Little Richard offer their own anecdotes which collectively build to a larger portrait of Hendrix. The liberal sprinkling of swear words demonstrates the laid back approach many of them have and through this comes talk of Hendrix’s drug use, say, which is far more off-the-cuff than is usual and as such highly effective. Understandably there are some instances of a clash in these recollections (especially with regards to Hendrix’s “innocence”), yet this only serves to enhance the personal nature. Indeed, towards the end Mick Jagger owns up to not knowing whether Hendrix was a “casualty” or not and leaves it at that – a far preferable take on the subject than attempting to impose some kind of theory.
The results then are pleasingly honest and as a result the film hasn’t really dated beyond its more obvious qualities (hairstyles, film stocks, etc.). Of course, Hendrix has become the subject of numerous documentaries since, each burrowing away at their own particular niche, yet this is a piece which more than deserves to sit alongside them. Certainly, the more purely musical examples are likely to enjoy a much greater longevity – those records of the performances at Monterey, Berkeley and Woodstock, in particular – but there’s a warmth which characterises Jimi Hendrix apart from these and sets out its own worth.
Previously issued in the UK as a single disc, extras free release, Jimi Hendrix now gets the special edition treatment complete with a second disc full of extras and remastered presentation. In the latter respect, the job done is generally pleasing. Here we find the film in a ratio of 1.78:1 (which approximates the 1.85:1 aspect ratio which would have adopted by cinemas and is anamorphically enhanced of course) and on the whole it looks as good as we should rightfully expect. Certainly, it’s made up of a wide variety of film stocks owing to its various bits of performance footage and as such these should be taken into account. The videotaped Fillmore footage, for example, really couldn’t be improved and the same goes for the 16mm interview pieces. These moments are often rife with grain and the occasional flicker, but then it shouldn’t be any other way. As such the disc offers a perfect reflection of its source and in this respect cannot be faulted.
As for the soundtrack here we find a DD5.1 remix of the film’s original stereo. Supervised by Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s sound recorder, we are perhaps finding the most suitable person for the job, but still there are caveats to be had. Given that the additional channels are utilised primarily on the bits of concert footage – and therefore bits of film which have been put together by others – is it really right that they should be messed with. Of course, Woodstock and Monterey Pop both came with 5.1 soundtracks to begin with, but what of the others? Admittedly, you cannot fault the mix on the technical level and there are no flaws to speak of, but it would have been to see the original DD2.0 included alongside.
Of the various extras (all of which are identical to those found on the Region 1 release, by the way, save for the ‘Machine Gun’ performance which didn’t make an appearance there) the centrepiece is a 63-minute documentary From the Ukulele to the Strat. However, despite the length this proves to be something of a disappointment as all it amounts to is a hastily edited grab bag of outtakes from the film. We get plenty more of Al Hendrix, say, or Mitch Mitchell or Pete Townshend, yet these outtakes are just lumped in one after the other. Only towards the end do we see these pieces edited together and as such it begs the question as to why we couldn’t simply access these pieces individually. Indeed, there are no chapter stops or even a list of who comes where, making for an extremely frustrating, unfocussed hour and a bit.
The featurette, entitled ‘The Making of Dolly Dagger’, similarly comes from the same time and shows Eddie Kramer breaking down to titular song into its component parts and thereby divulging how it was created. Understandably cut from the main film, it’s a welcome addition here especially as it wasn’t lumped into the above documentary, but rather can be accessed as its own individual piece.
Rounding off the package we also have live performances of ‘Machine Gun’ and ‘Stone Free’ from 1969 and 1970 respectively. Again, these were probably intended for inclusion with the main film at some point (there’s no contextualising material to confirm this) and as such make for welcome additions. Indeed, the latter has never before been seen.
As with the main feature, a multitude of subtitles (see right sidebar) are available on the extras where applicable. Note however that in both the special features and the film itself the lyrics to the songs go unsubtitled.
Anthony Nield takes a look at Jimi Hendrix, a 1973 documentary on the famed guitarist soon to be released on Region 2 as a two-disc special edition.