“I knew Jimi could take more of anything than we could,” remarks Jimi Hendrix’s onetime girlfriend, Fayne Pridgon, “because he was already abnormal, so whatever he took just brought him back around to normal.” Making light of the legendary guitarist’s tolerance for controlled substances might seem crass given that drug abuse contributed to his demise, but unguarded remarks like this one make Jimi Hendrix consistently interesting. Released just three years after Hendrix’s death, and more importantly made at a time before corporations and spin doctors trapped rock music within a cocoon of political correctness and revisionism, this ramshackle documentary conveys not only key points of its subject’s unique life experience, but also the prevailing attitudes of an important era. Instead of deifying or vilifying Hendrix, the movie simply collects observations from those who knew, loved, and respected him, putting across the picture of a gifted individual whose gradual separation from reality led, almost inevitably, to tragedy.
Although most of the screen time in Jimi Hendrix comprises archival footage of performances (including clips from the acclaimed documentaries Monterey Pop and Woodstock), filmmakers Joe Boyd, John Head, and Gary Weis integrate freshly filmed interviews with family members, friends, and musicians. Pridgon provides most of the tastiest quotes, since she seems utterly unconcerned with how she’s perceived. Conversely, some comments (notably the remarks made by eccentric rock-music icon Little Richard) fall into the trap of self-aggrandizement. Nonetheless, most of the film’s speakers are insightful and ruminative. Guitar heroes Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend recall their early encounters with Hendrix, who was accused of borrowing from Clapton’s and Townshend’s styles, and they both express their boundless admiration for Hendrix’s talent while acknowledging the ways that fame creates expectations that are impossible (and unwise) to fulfill. Similarly, Lou Reed intelligently describes the post-Woodstock period during which Hendrix tried to veer away from the onstage antics that made him famous in order to get listeners to focus solely on his music.
Eventually, a complex portrait emerges of a man who was obsessed with his art, prone to self-destructive choices, and susceptible to poor counsel. (Chances are subsequent biographers have corrected certain understandings about Hendrix, so this movie should be considered more impressionistic than definitive.) Throughout Jimi Hendrix, the filmmakers return again and again to vignettes of the guitarist performing, from the familiar (reinterpreting “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock) to the unfamiliar (a solo acoustic performance in a dreamlike, all-white studio space). Beyond simply entertaining viewers, these scenes reinforce why Hendrix merits such close investigation. If he was indeed “abnormal,” to use Pridgon’s word, it was at least in part because Hendrix heard aural textures and sonic possibilities that were inaudible to others.
Jimi Hendrix: GROOVY