Sunday, November 03, 2013

American Masters: Jimi Hendrix

It is one of American music’s most tantalizing what’s if’s.  Shortly before his death, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis were seriously pursuing some form of musical collaboration. Sadly, it would not come to pass and therefore never factors in a new profile produced for PBS.  Dead at the tragically youthful age of twenty-seven, Hendrix’s career as a headliner only spanned four short years, but Bob Smeaton lovingly documents his every musical milestone in Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’ (promo here), which airs this Tuesday as part of the current season of American Masters.

Hendrix fans only need to know Smeaton turned up some previously unseen footage of the guitar legend absolutely tearing it up at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival to sign on for this Train.  For everyone else, Smeaton (the director of the Beatles Anthology network documentary mini-series and several installments of the Classic Albums series) gives Hendrix the proper American Masters treatment.  Hendrix was a veteran of the Army 101st Airborne and the chitlin’ circuit.  A broken ankle led to an honorable discharge and years of sideman work with performers like Little Richard.  Most tried to contain him, but the Isley Brothers understood what they had and turned him loose.  They were the exceptions, but eventually Chas Chandler, the former Animals bassist looking to get into the management business, also heard what others just couldn’t get.

Train decently explores the contradiction between the personally conservative Hendrix, the veteran and shy son devoted to his working class father, and Hendrix the flamboyant showman, who shrewdly appealed to emerging hippie market.  Smeaton deliberately downplays the sex and drugs, focusing instead on the personal and the musical, including his formative blues influences.  Of course, the Monterey and Woodstock episodes loom large, understandably given the exposure that resulted from both. However, the sequences chronicling his expatriate period are considerably more engaging, particularly since they feature Sir Paul McCartney and Chandler as the primary talking heads.

Hendrix’s musical legacy is undeniably massive.  However, unless one takes a deep dive into his hugely influential recordings, his all too brief life represents a biographical challenge.  As a result, the nearly two-hour Train is a tad repetitive at times.  Yes, Hendrix did not like talking about himself—we so get that.  Frankly, there are probably ten or fifteen minutes of padding that could have easily been stripped away.  Nevertheless, Smeaton delivers a good dose of what fans will want.  Never sensationalistic and rarely overly hagiographic, American Masters’ Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’ airs this Tuesday (11/5) on most PBS stations nationwide.