Nov. 04--Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin': an "American Masters" documentary, 9 p.m. Tuesday, PBS.
If the new "American Masters" documentary on Jimi Hendrix doesn't seem to do full justice to the late guitar hero, it's only because no film could ever capture what it was like to hear Hendrix live.
"Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin'," directed by Bob Smeaton and premiering Tuesday on PBS, hits all the right notes, beginning with Hendrix's childhood in Seattle, his military service where he met lifelong friend and frequent collaborator Billy Cox, and into his tragically brief but still brilliant career as one of the greatest guitar players in the world. And there's plenty of musical evidence of his singular genius, including previously unseen footage from the 1968 Miami Pop Festival.
For many, the real highlight of the film won't be commentary from musicians such as Paul McCartney, Dweezil Zappa, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood or Hendrix's bandmates in the Experience, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. Instead, it's sound engineer Eddie Kramer who provides the most useful and revelatory context for Hendrix's music.
Kramer, who worked closely with Hendrix for years, deconstructs a single passage of typically dense Hendrix music to demonstrate how the sound was created through the fusion of three guitar layers, each of which was musically distinct from the others. One layer is what Kramer calls "a little dirty" -- raucous, almost animalistic -- while another segment is gently minimalistic, and the third brings the other two lines together and launches the whole thing like a spiraling musical skyrocket.
That single moment provides a useful key to understanding the virtuosic brilliance of Hendrix's style, rooted in blues but with wildly improvisatory psychedelic flourishes.
Hendrix, who like Janis Joplin died at 27, was not in any way a tortured man, according to those who knew him and worked closely with him.
He loved two things in life above all else -- playing guitar, and women -- and he was masterful in both pursuits. He did drugs because it was part of the era, but his death in 1970 in London was caused by taking a couple of especially potent sleeping pills supplied by his girlfriend.
Once Jimi Hendrix and the Experience made its American debut at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, it didn't take long for his shows to become huge sellouts. His first major tour followed the next year, and fledgling FM radio began to play his music. But this was before MTV and certainly before YouTube, so the only way for most people to see Hendrix was in live performance.
Unlike the Beatles and even the Doors, Hendrix couldn't get on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The only way people could hear him was to see him live.
Another reason Hendrix attracted attention, says Rolling Stone's David Fricke, was that it was virtually unheard of for an African American guitarist to play rock with a British bassist and drummer, both of whom were white.
Hendrix said he had a premonition that he'd never live to be 30, and that turned out to be tragically true. Unlike other rock icons, particularly those who died young, Hendrix led a fairly uncomplicated life.
There's little drama or trauma in that aspect of the "American Masters" film. By contrast, every time we see and hear Hendrix play, the film comes alive, even if the sound and visual qualities aren't up to 21st century standards. The only complaint anyone is likely to make is that even though the film is loaded with performance footage, it's not anywhere near enough.
As Fricke succinctly puts it, "What set him apart was everything."
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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