The Electric Religion
The scene opens on a room with red walls and floor, a table and white carpet. The camera tracks in slowly, almost tentatively, maybe respectfully. A title tells you it’s “London September 1970.” Jimi Hendrix (Wood Harris) crosses the room, restless, pausing before a window, the light falling on his face as he lifts it up. “I see miracles every day now,” his voice over begins. “It’s a universal thought. It’s not a black or a white thing, or a green and gold thing. There are a few chosen people that are here to help get these people out of this certain sleepiness that they’re in.”
Jimi Hendrix was, of course, something of a miracle in his own right. Gifted and tormented, brilliant and inspired, he awakened millions of listeners despite any number of personal and professional hardships, not least being racism pervading the music industry. Showtime’s ambitious biopic, Hendrix, airs on Sunday, 18 September, the 30th anniversary of his death from a barbiturates overdose at the age of 27. Structured as an extended flashback, occasioned by an interview, the film charts a basic chronology that begins in Seattle, 1954, where Al Hendrix (Dorian Harewood) gives his son a first guitar: “Oh that’s right, you left-handed, huh?,” Al says, in the first of the film’s many awkward moments of explication, “You just gonna have to learn how to play it backwards.” Father (on sax) and son play some rudimentary “jazz,” for about thirty seconds, then in walks the boy’s estranged mother Lucille (Linda Carter), so you might know how much young James wants to please her. The script by Hal Roberts, Butch Stein, and Art Washington, is full of such cryptic, mini-scenes that reduce Hendrix’s complex life to consumable fragments, framed by newsreel montages that serve as standard tv-movie shorthand for The Era (the twist, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elvis getting his military crewcut, the Beatles, Civil Rights marchers, the Supremes, Malcolm X, Dylan, the Kennedy assassination).
Within a few minutes, Hendrix (now grown up into Harris, consistently good in a difficult part) is back from his tour in Vietnam (Army Airborne), then, in 1965, on stage with Little Richard (Kevin Hanchard), who puts his leg up on his piano, then casts dagger-eyes at his flamboyant, radiant guitarist, who is plainly wowing the girls in the audience. Cut to the inevitable next scene, when Richard tells Hendrix, “When I said to let your thunder fly, I didn’t mean higher than mine.” His next music experiences don’t even appear on screen, but listed by Hendrix during the framing 12 September 1970 interview: Ike and Tina Turner, King Curtis, Joey D and the Starlighters. For about two minutes, the film shows Hendrix living with Faye Pridgeon (underused Vivica A. Fox), “Sam Cooke’s ex,” as Jimi calls her. Faye supports him for a time while he puts a band together in New York, or more precisely, until he’s noticed by a couple of white promoters, including Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Linda Keith (Ann Marin): apparently all girls in this world are identified only by their boyfriends (though Joplin does appear as a few frames of archival footage). The white folks put Jimi on at the Café Wow in the Village because he’s “different.”
The structural artifice in Hendrix is certainly familiar. Premium cable movies tend to follow a formula of clearly marked rising and falling action, and director Leon Ichaso is experienced (Ali, Free of Eden, and The Fear Inside). Just so, Hendrix simplifies its subject’s difference into rather neat and identifiable abstractions he has a vision, he “transcends time, space, and color.” In order to turn his “electric religion” into a 90ish-minute plot, however, the film resorts to telegraphic dialogue and references to major, often painful shifts in his career and music. For example, Hendrix’s “difference” is turned into a motivation for his break with Faye, staged here as a function of race politics: he’s into Bob Dylan and other acts he’s absorbing from his new environment, but Faye, feeling jealous and abandoned, warns him, “The Village ain’t no place for a black man, Jimi, you’ll see.” She’s right, of course (and the observation extends to the States more broadly), though the film does make it look like he’s leaving her, as she represents his cultural “roots.” Soon enough, Jimi backed by his new supporter and producer, ex-Animal Chas Chandler (Christian Potenza) goes to London to pursue his own sound, to play with Cream, and then to form the Experience, with whom he explored hybrid music forms, working across rock, jazz, and blues boundaries all way ahead of their time.
Sadly, Hendrix doesn’t detail any of this musical development. It only touches on the most famous high and low points in the artist’s extraordinary all tragically brief career, with a series of performances to mark turning points. So, you see him on stage and in the recording studio with Experience bass player Noel Redding (Kristen J. Holden-Reid) and drummer Mitch Mitchell (Christopher Ralph), doing “Hey Joe” in London, “Wild Thing” at Monterey Pop, touring with the Monkees, at Woodstock. The music, produced by Hendrix’s friend and former promoter Ron Terry (who appears in the film as a character, played by Christopher Bolton), comprises covers, which are, needless to say, not quite the caliber of Hendrix’s own work. The film might be thought brave (and somewhat reasonable) in its choice to represent Hendrix’s career as a series of musical performances rather than melodramatic events. But the fact is that there are many better, more satisfying ways to hear and see these performances on CDs of course, but also in several worthy documentaries, including Joe Boyd, John Head, and Gary Weiss’s wonderful Jimi Hendrix (1973), as well as Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland (1997), Mojo Working: Jimi Hendrix (1992), Murray Lerner’s Jimi Hendrix Live at the Isle of Wight (1992), D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1969), and Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970).
You also see Hendrix off stage on occasion, where he’s usually getting into trouble, expounding on his increasingly grand conceptions (of music, himself, his spiritual leadership), exploring his own physicality with a composite, demonized white woman named “Jane” (Wendy Mahoney), who turns him on to coke (and, from there, presumably, harder drugs), or contemplating his political mission while listening to a couple of “Black Panthers” (Conrad Coates, Martin Roach) who advise him of the broader consequences of his individual and professional choices. The film also includes a straight-up heavy in the form of Michael Jeffrey (Billy Zane, almost unrecognizable, with ‘70s-styley mop-of-hair and glasses), who signs Hendrix to a contract when he first comes to London and then demands that the artist repeatedly turn out “Hendrix” records, which can be marketed like a brand name. Despite Michael (who essentially stands in for the venally commercial “popular music” industry), Hendrix continues to experiment with music and drugs, making the albums Electric Ladyland and Sky Church, and working with the Band of Gypsies (including drummer Buddy Miles).
The film winds down into a series of aphorisms, as Jimi observes his relationship to music and the world that demands so much of him. “Music is so important,” he insists to his nameless, plot-device-interviewers. “Music doesn’t lie.” Unfortunately, for all its obvious good intentions and respect for its subject, Hendrix can’t help but lie, at least a little. It can never fully embrace his genius, his demons, or his music. And it never feels very important.