Jimi Hendrix: Deluxe Edition Review

The Sixties produced a plethora of fine guitarists, and a good few great ones, but all would defer to one man. John Allen Hendrix, later renamed James Marshall Hendrix (1942-1970), burned very brightly indeed, but not for long. He numbers amongst the most significant musicians of the last century, expanding the possibilities of his instrument like no other. That instrument was, of course, the electric guitar. In his hands, he showed definitively that it was a different beast to its acoustic cousin. There’s no doubt he could play acoustic if he wanted to – in fact, the cover image of this DVD shows him hunched over a acoustic twelve-string – but apart from his technique and prowess, it was his mastery of sustain, feedback and sheer volume that set him apart. He was a man who united contradictions: a black man playing in a musical genre (amplified hard rock) mostly dominated by whites. Quite shy offstage, he was an unashamed cock-rocker onstage. His impact derived in part from his charisma, overt sexuality and showmanship, in addition to his mastery of the amplified six strings.

And there is of course, his early death. That certainly doesn’t always ensure icon status: notice how, ten years on, River Phoenix is slipping away from the public consciousness while Kurt Cobain remains there. It’s fascinating to speculate what Hendrix would have done if he hadn’t died (by all accounts, accidentally). He seemed to be moving away from the blues-based rock power trio epitomised by the Experience, to explore jazz. But who can tell? Certainly the studio albums he made still repay listening now, and his concert appearances – especially at Monterey and Woodstock – retain their potency to this day.

Jimi Hendrix was released in 1973. It has no director’s credit: it’s “assembled by” Joe Boyd, produced by John Head and researched by Gary Weis. It interviews family (especially Hendrix’s father Al), friends and colleagues and fellow musicians: a reasonably comprehensive list given some notable omissions, more of which later. Interspersed with the interviews are live performances: from the literally pyrotechnic finale of “Wild Thing” at the Monterey Pop, the performance of “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, to the Isle of Wight Festival, the Marquee Club and the Fillmore East. We hear from army buddies like Billy Cox (who later played bass for Hendrix in the Band of Gypsies), former bosses like Little Richard (who is on flamboyant form here). Germaine Greer turns up to discuss how Hendrix found the adulation hard to cope with. Meanwhile, contemporaries such as Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and especially Pete Townshend chip in on Hendrix’s musical impact.

The film arranges the interviews in more-or-less chronological order, and are well edited so that the hour-and-three-quarter running time doesn’t drag. As I said above, there are some omissions. It would be good to hear from Bob Dylan, who both influenced Hendrix and was influenced by him: Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is surely definitive, something acknowledged by Dylan, who played the song Hendrix-style on his Rolling Thunder tour, as heard on the live album Before the Flood. However, given Dylan’s characteristic contrariness, maybe that didn’t work out. Also on my wish-list would be Steve Winwood and Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady, who joined Hendrix and the Experience’s faithful drummer Mitch Mitchell on the long version of “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland, though perhaps that would best be placed in a more in-depth study of that album.

An omission closer to home is Noel Redding, bassist in the Experience. Mitch Mitchell is present and happy to talk, but Redding is completely absent. There’s no doubt there was some bitterness there. Redding was a guitarist who turned up to audition for the Animals, to be offered the bass gig in the Experience by Hendrix’s manager (and Animals bassist) Chas Chandler. Apparently Hendrix liked his Afro hairstyle. However, in the latter days of the Experience, Redding found himself increasingly marginalised. There’s a story of his turning up to work one day during the sessions for Electric Ladyland to be asked “Who the fuck are you?” by one of the many hangers-on. (His answer: “I’m only the fucking bass player.”) On that album, there are tracks where there is no bass at all, or an outside bassist is brought in (Jack Casady, as mentioned above), or the instrument is played by Hendrix himself. Apparently as a sop to Redding, Hendrix gave him a song credit and lead vocal: that song, “Little Miss Strange” is by no means bad, but it’s patently dwarfed by the company it keeps. You have to feel sorry for Redding, who faced the dilemma that Peter Shaffer dramatised in Amadeus: that of someone who is not untalented confronted by genius. A by all accounts bitter man, Redding (who died in 2003) does not participate in this documentary.

Jimi Hendrix remains a model of the biographical documentary, and remains a good place for beginners who may wish to explore further the man’s legacy on DVD and CD. The interviews put it all in context, while the live footage shows us precisely what it was all about.

Jimi Hendrix was previously released as a bare-bones Warner’s back catalogue disc with mono sound. It’s now been revisited in this Deluxe Edition. I’m reviewing the American release, which is NTSC format and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4. There are twenty-four chapter stops. Subtitles are provided for the feature only.

The DVD is anamorphic, in a ratio of 1.78:1. Is this the correct ratio? Yes and no. The film shows every sign of being shot in 16mm (grain, softness and all) and some of the concert footage (Monterey, Woodstock) certainly was. Some shots do look cropped. However, this was a documentary that was blown up to 35mm and intended for wide distribution, and then as now, few cinemas could show 4:3 material properly. The film looks like it’s been carefully cropped so that the vital part of each shot can still be seen if shown in 1.85:1, so that would be intended ratio, opened up slightly for this DVD. Although the film has been remastered for this release, it’s far from reference material, given the limitations of its source material, but I doubt it’s looked better.

1973 was before the arrival of Dolby Stereo in cinemas. Some films were graced with four-track magnetic tracks, but cinemas capable of playing these were few, mostly big-city showcase venues. In any case, that was an option that appears not to have been taken up in this film’s case, and it’s certainly true that most people at the time of its release would have heard it in mono, as was the original DVD release. This edition however has two soundtrack options, Dolby Digital 5.1 and surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0. Normally, I’d be against remixing a mono track, but this is an exception. Most of the film remains monophonic, with surround sound only coming in with the live material. This footage was professionally recorded with multitrack recording equipment and in the case of Monterey Pop and Woodstock 5.1 soundtracks already exist. Be warned: this footage is considerably louder than the interview footage, but if your neighbours don’t object it sounds great. Surrounds are used for audience applause. Thanks to the subwoofer, any bassists who want to play along with Redding or Cox will be well served.

There exists an outstanding commentary on the life, times and music of Hendrix, but that was provided by Charles Shaar Murray (author of the Hendrix book Crosstown Traffic) for Criterion’s release of Jimi Plays Monterey in their Complete Monterey Pop box set. There’s no commentary on Jimi Hendrix. I doubt one could compete, but as the film is a biographical documentary, it would be mostly superfluous anyway. The extras that are provided are certainly worthwhile.

“From the Ukulele to the Strat” is a long featurette that seems to have been made at the same time as the feature, given the age and appearance of the participants. It consists of interviews with many of the same people interviewed in Jimi Hendrix, but with no live footage. It complements the main feature quite nicely, and some good anecdotes are forthcoming. It’s presented in 4:3 and runs 63:01.

“The Making of Dolly Dagger” (6:31) uses the format familiar to many “Classic Album” editions. Here engineer Eddie Kramer sits at a mixing desk and takes us through this song from Rainbow Bridge, breaking it down into its component parts: the basic guitar/bass/drums/vocals, plus layers of guitar, fuzz bass, congas, footstamps and backing vocals. Finally, “Stone Free Uncut” (6:06) is a previously-unreleased performance from the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival. This is in 4:3 and has only 2.0 mono sound, but Hendrix fans will certainly be glad to have it.

With Jimi Hendrix, Warners have revisited a film that was a midnight-movie favourite in the 1970s and updated the DVD release with some very worthwhile extras. Fans of the electric guitar, Sixties music and Hendrix in particular should snap this up.

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