Movies: Jimi Hendrix – The Guitar Hero (2010)

“The Guitar Hero” moves away from the tabloid side of the Jimi Hendrix myth, instead delving into the American guitarist’s sweeping impact on rock music and the instrument. That makes director Jon Brewer’s film not so much a biography, per se, as it is tone-poem love letter to Hendrix’s muse, and how it finally ignited.

I think, at this late date, that makes it more interesting. For me, reanimating his playing legend — a still-indelible blending of African-American roots-music showmanship, lyrical Dylanesque whimsy and grease-fire virtuosity — is this new DVD’s great triumph.

“The Guitar Hero” (Imagine Entertainment) begins with a title sequence that whips the viewer around on an old wooden roller coaster, powerful imagery that recalls how Hendrix took the familiar artiface of electric guitar and made it such an intuitive, otherworldly experience — confusing, exciting, surprising, and very, very loud.

Then it settles into a illuminating examination of how his genius shot through the 1960s rock royalty in swinging 1960s London — and completed his artistic journey to stardom.

We join the story 10 days into that seminal 1966 visit, as Hendrix — who’d been sitting out in the audience — asked to come on stage with Eric Clapton and Cream. Nobody had ever made such a gutty request, Clapton says on “The Guitar Hero.” Hendrix then tore through songs by old-school legends like Howlin’ Wolf, unfurling a rewired blues on “Cutting Floor” that plugged directly into the new age. The room was left in a vacuum of speechless wonder.

“This is young guy,” Clapton says, “doing what they do, but he’s brought it into this decade.”

Mick Taylor, the celebrated sideman with the Rolling Stones and John Mayall, loaned him an instrument so he could play a few gigs. Hendrix famously turned the guitar upside down — he was left handed — and began performing all across town.

Drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding were quickly added, settling the lineup of Hendrix’s overnight-sensation band, the Experience. They were on tour in Europe before the trio had really even gotten to know one another. Hendrix’s impishly magnetic personality, retro-cool fashion sense, and flinty outsider inventiveness glued them together.

He almost immediately changed the scene, drawing front-row fandom from the Beatles, Cream, the Stones, Steve Winwood, the Animals, The Who, members of Yes, and a number of other contemporary British bands.

“That was just before (Cream) left for America, and Jimi had completely taken over — with a trio,” says Clapton, who brought Pete Townshend along one night. “Suddenly, we were like yesterday’s newspapers.”

Clapton later movingly talks about having purchased a left-handed guitar for Hendrix, just a day before he passed.

“Jimi Hendrix — The Guitar Hero,” narrated by Slash (Guns n Roses/Velvet Revolver), also features interviews with Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Rolling Stones’ Taylor; Dave Mason (a sometime studio sideman with Hendrix); Lemmy Kilmister (once a Hendrix roadie), The Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, Chris Squire of Yes and others. Their thoughts are paired with a bevy of unreleased archival footage — including 8mm silent footage from Hendrix’s still largely unbelievable 1967 opening dates for Dolenz’s band; a full performance of “Hey Joe,” recorded with the Experience at the Marquee in London; and a 20-page full-color booklet.

We rediscover a figure who carried with him an age-old American story — Hendrix had come to Europe to avoid the lingering racism that pigeonholed blacks — but with an adaptive, incendiary new approach that updated the showmanship of chitlin-circuit blues stars like Freddie King. Once he’d become famous overseas, recognition finally followed in Hendrix’s home country — if only for a moment.

There would be just four albums, and roughly 600 concerts, from Hendrix in a four-year span before he accidentially overdosed in 1970 at just 27.

He’d begun learning his craft as a hard-luck orphan teen, playing pick up gigs with Ray Charles and other visiting bands in his native Seattle. Hendrix was hired and fired from touring groups behind the likes of Little Richard and Tina Turner, mostly because he wouldn’t conform. He’d add sharp-edged flourishes to the sheet-music riffs, refuse to wear the uniform. Hendrix just couldn’t be pushed to the back of a bandstand.

It wasn’t until this trip to London, however, that things finally fell into place for Hendrix as a musician. The biggest names in music now believed in him, just as much as he’d always believed in himself.

That’s why, when he returned to the U.S. to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, famously sending his instrument up in flames, Hendrix seemed to arrive fully formed. Like a superstar already shooting halfway across the sky.

He was.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.