Seeing as how little exists in the way of Jimi Hendrix archival material on film, it’s easy to get excited over the release or improved reissue of even the most questionable artifacts. Jimi Plays Berkeley is an excellent case in point — seemingly doomed from the very beginning, this most frustrating of Hendrix films has survived its controversial origins into the 21st century and now reaps the benefits of technology’s latest dressings. As always, the question is whether or not the additional bells and whistles necessitate an upgrade — and, as is frequently the case, it’s not the easiest query to answer.
It’s already well known that the footage eventually used to compile this film wasn’t really intended as anything more than vague documentation of Hendrix’s Berkeley performance — a piece of knowledge that’s key to any sort of appreciation for the visual component of this set. As it was handed down through a series of custodians, the footage was finally shaped into an admittedly weak attempt at a documentary-style final product; with a lot of imagination you can get at a least a sense of what the producers were trying to do. As is, however, it doesn’t offer much more than bewilderment — whether spending a solid five minutes on Hendrix’s arrival and soundcheck (complete with deliberate close-ups of Jimi’s foot working his wah-wah pedal), splicing in scenes from local protests over the high cost of Woodstock at a local theater, or applying dated low-budget camera effects during the outer reaches of Hendrix’s solos, it leaves you at best wondering what grade of hallucinogens the film crew had ingested prior to the show.
The truncated versions of the band’s performances don’t help the cause either, at least for the material filmed during the first set. Even beyond the choppy editing, it’s fairly apparent that the band wasn’t quite clicking — Hendrix’s guitar work is stunning to be sure, but Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox seem to be perpetually lagging behind in both the most flamboyant (“Johnny B. Goode”) and introspective (“Hear My Train A Comin'”) moments. And if that’s not enough to make you wary, the executive decision to splice in what looks like footage of saxophone lessons at a community center during “The Star-Spangled Banner” will surely leave you wondering if the film’s final cut was pieced together by William S. Burroughs.
Yet it’s this seemingly random lack of attention to coherence that makes the second half’s transformation that much more unbelievable. In the film, Hendrix returns to the stage in some sort of far-out angel suit and proceeds to erase the first half’s awkwardness in a matter of minutes. From the first rumbles of “I Don’t Live Today” — although it’s out of sequence from the actual concert — the entire band is connecting at every synapse, which in turn allows Jimi to soar even further into the stratosphere. It even appears as if the producers caught this shift as well, because the footage focuses almost entirely on Hendrix, except for a section of “Machine Gun” that uses film of the Berkeley campus riots for a powerful (and, finally, sensible) juxtaposition. For the biggest treat of all, the film crew had the prescience to capture the band’s closing number “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” in its entirety — which just happens to be one of the best live versions I’ve ever seen of that particular song. It’s a complete and utter joy to watch him divine his solo straight from the cosmos, exuding confidence and mastery every note of the way.
But even for all the film’s shortcomings, the DVD’s audio portion definitely sweetens the deal with its 5.1 surround sound mix of the entire second set. While those not inclined to such severe states of audiophilia should be content with the stereo CD version released on the same day, anyone who cares about such matters will not be disappointed. Even set-list-less, Hendrix manages to mix up fan favorites like “Hey Joe”, “Foxey Lady”, and “Purple Haze” with jams and unfinished new songs (“Pass It On (Straight Ahead)”, “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”) — all of which make me even more curious to hear the first set and compare the performances.
And that’s really what it comes down to in terms of recommendation — the audio. Anyone who has the capabilities to hear the DVD audio should definitely go that route (especially since the DVD bears a lower list price than the CD), although the stereo mix will suit most Hendrix devotees just fine. But given the extreme lack of quality with respect to the video component, it’s one of those rare DVDs where the bonus material far outweighs the feature.