Jimi Hendrix ‘Electric Church’ Doc: More Magic

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James Marshall Hendrix made a lot of music and was filmed and photographed incessantly during a relatively short four-year career span that ended when he died in London on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27. Much has been written about his stature as, many believe, the world’s all-time greatest electric guitar player, but he was far more than just a guitarist as well as singer and songwriter. Jimi Hendrix was an avatar, a spiritual force in the universe, a philosopher and a cultural icon who personified the youth culture upheaval of the 1960s known as the Age of Aquarius.

Much of Hendrix’s lore has come to light sometimes years after his death. And due to the compelling nature of the material, it’s always a revelation for music enthusiasts and Hendrix fanatics alike. Rare photos, lost and unearthed performances and minute details of the man’s life were often, say, buried in the files of some photographer’s attic or – as in the case of the 16mm performance footage seen in Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church  – stowed away in a filmmaker’s barn.

The film is finally in theaters, with a special Q-and-A with director John McDermott and legendary producer and engineer Eddie Kramer. It continues with screenings around the U.S. into May, via Abramorama in partnership with Experience Hendrix LLC and Sony Legacy Recordings. See the schedule below. (It originally premiered on Showtime in 2015.)

Original footage director Steve Rash – who later made feature films like The Buddy Holly Story and Can’t Buy Me Love – intended the movie he shot about the 1970 Atlanta International Pop Festival to be a celebration of a down-south answer to Woodstock. He couldn’t line up a deal to finish and release it, and virtually all of the film lay undeveloped inside Rash’s barn for over three decades. Lucky for us, the keepers of the flame at Experience Hendrix LLC came calling in search of the visual record of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Independence Day 1970 appearance to go with the sole surviving multitrack soundboard master they were upgrading for a two-CD audio release, Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival. The footage survived remarkably intact for being stored under less-than-ideal conditions, and is most definitely a worthy addition to the Hendrix canon.


Photo: © Sam Feinsilver / Authentic Hendrix, LLC

How does documentary director McDermott do with this resurrected piece of history? He certainly had some great material to work with. Rash’s footage is compelling if not mind-blowing. And McDermott uses its advantages well: Hendrix at the height of his powers headlining a festival in front of an enthusiastic 300,000 or so people – his largest-ever American crowd – that was with him to the max. The disadvantages also serve the film well: The cameras focus on the stage with its psychedelic light show backdrop and Hendrix and Experience members bassist Billy Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell, sans the usual de rigeur pans of the festival crowd in thrall. Because of a power shortage: the crowd was not lit, except for the thousands of cigarette lighters held aloft in tribute to Jimi.

The scene is set with footage of ultra-conservative Georgia Governor Lester Maddox railing against hippies and the counterculture, naked people dancing around smoking dope and being free, and photo montages of Jimi in various stages of his meteoric rise to fame. A soft-spoken, Gandhi-like Hendrix explains his politics of love, peace and harmony and the concept of the “electric church” to a bemused Dick Cavett as a vehicle for getting “our sound to go inside the soul of the people” in a clip from Cavett’s TV talk show.

The core performance material is fleshed out with talking head interviews with Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Rich Robinson, Kirk Hammett, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, festival organizer Alex Cooley, Rash, publicist Bob Merlis, Mitchell and a very upbeat Cox, and a sweaty, sweetly funny Leslie West (who also played the festival with his band Mountain). They all marvel at Hendrix’ impact on them as musicians: “We all played guitar. We all knew a bit. But he seemed to know more than us” (McCartney). “There was no bullshit about him” (Trucks). “He made his Strat into a lethal weapon” (Hammett). Winwood kvells at the synchronicity of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” with the evening’s Independence Day pyrotechnics display: “They’re shooting off fireworks and he’s playing off of it.” Leslie West recalls the day’s conditions: “It was so fucking hot I couldn’t feel my fingers on the guitar” Merlis notes: “Hendrix was the biggest act of the time and in this performance he was at his peak.”


Photo: © Sam Feinsilver / Authentic Hendrix, LLC

Jimi was a reactive performer. He felt the vibe of the audience and viscerally gave it back to them in how he performed. Watching this footage, that rings true in every frame. In the stage patter and excitement of the performance, in the power of the music. Jimi was on that night, and it shows in the band’s palpable give-and-take with the crowd. Cox sums up his army buddy’s mystique as: “The people were there and the love was there. Jimi made every night a magical moment.” And Hendrix seconds that emotion: “It was great to play for these people.”

A few quibbles: as filmmaker McDermott sums up Jimi’s history, photos appear in a Ken Burns-style montage that are out-of-sync with the periods discussed. And to display the crowd response he lacked, footage shows Jimi musically diddling stageside teenyboppers with his Strat. Viewers might think the sequence is from the Atlanta Pop performance, but it was borrowed but from an earlier one already commemorated on the excellent Jimi Plays Berkeley. It would have been helpful just to have chyroned subtitles on the images so the Hendrix fanatics don’t groan and the audience at large could place the historical visuals in the proper context.

But in the performance department, the actual playing of the music as shot by Rash’s multi-camera crew, and with the audio remastered by Hendrix sonic expert Eddie Kramer, this is a rare pleasure indeed. The audio performance was previously released on a CD box set called Stages, and it sounded pretty good. But the efforts of Kramer makes this show play so much better. The tone of Jimi’s guitar feels warmer and much more like it should, and you can hear the reverb now.

His version of “Red House” is edited down, omitting the two-and-a-half minutes where Hendrix was playing his Strat out of tune (as heard on Stages). “Hear My Train A Comin’” is a churning hunk of burning funk on here, with pungent notes of irony, sincerity and autobiographical je ne sai qua. “Foxy Lady” is so fine you wouldn’t believe he was playing this song for the N-teenth time, taking your breath away with his signature move of playing its solo with his teeth. “Foxy Lady” is a revelation in front of this crowd, who are totally in sync with the master showman up there on the handsomely lit stage.

On “Hey Joe,” Hendrix does his Wes Montgomery rhythm guitar voicing thing in a totally fresh and improvisational context, adding Beatles notes while Billy Cox, resplendent in red white and blue overalls, provides rock-steady counterpoint. “Purple Haze” is likewise is a jazzy workout with splashy altered chords and a revamped rhythm.

The crowning moments of the show are on “All Along the Watchtower,” which gets a full-on Hendrix “sky church” treatment – ascending to the mystical place where the music and the sacred spirit merge – with dizzying key changes, drum-and-bass duels and hearty shout-outs. And, of course, “The Star Spangled Banner,” with its segue into the experimental “Straight Ahead.” Right on cue , the holiday fireworks explode all around the band and are reflected in the light show behind them. It is a cosmic moment, and praise the Lord for the rewind button.

So in this respect, Electric Church shrewdly presents what was there on film, and did the right thing by stepping aside and letting the footage display the magic: you actually get to see Jimi playing his guitar, with no gratuitous cutaways to adoring audience members or distracted stagehands. So in the end I must give this uncovered artifact a hearty thumbs up.

Electric Church 2019 Theatrical Release Schedule

17 – Portland, OR – Hollywood Theatre
18 – Maitland, FL – Enzian Theater
17, 19 – Columbus OH – Gateway Film Center
20 – San Antonio, TX – Santikos Bijou
21- Eugene OR – Broadway Metro
21 – 21, 28 – Hudson NY – Time & Space Limited
22, 24, 26 – 28 – Lake Worth, FL – Lakeworth Playhouse
22 – Boise ID – The Flicks
22 – 24 – Albuquerque NM – Guild Cinema
22 – 28 – Howell MI – Historia Howell Theater
22 – 28 – Fayetteville NC – Cameo Art House
22 – Long Beach CA – The Art Theatre
24 – 25 – Cathedral City/Palm Springs CA – Mary Pickford 14
24, 26 – Florence OR – City Lights Cinemas
25 – Nashville TN – Belcourt Theatre ***
25 – Fairfield CT – StageOne
26 – Bellingham WA – Pickford Theater
26 – Vancouver BC (CAN) – Vancity Theatre
26 – Glendale CA – Laemmle Glendale
26 – North Hollywood CA – Laemmle NoHo 7
26 – Pasadena CA – Laemmle Playhouse 7
26 – Santa Monica CA – Laemmle Monica Film Center
26, 28 – Howell MI – Historic Howell Theater
26 – Sisters OR – Sisters Movie House
27 – Canberra ACT (AUS) – Capitol Cinemas Manuka
27 – Castle Hill NSW (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Castle Hill
27 – Cronulla NSW (AUS) – Greater Union Film House Cronulla
27 – Shellharbour NSW (AUS) – Greater Union Cinemas Shellharbour
27 – Sydney NSW (AUS) – EVENTS Cinemas George Street
27 – Chermside QLD (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Chermside
27 – Maroochydore QLD (AUS) – BCC Cinemas Maroochydore Sunshine Plaza
27 – Robina QLD (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Robina
27 – Oaklands Park SA (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Marion
27 – Cheltenham VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Southland
27 – South Yarra VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Jam Factory
27 – Sunshine VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Sunshine
27 – Wantima South VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Knox
27 – Innaloo WA – EVENT Cinemas Innaloo
27 – Auckland (NZ) – EVENT Cinemas Queen Street
27 – Auckland (NZ) – EVENT Cinemas Albany
27 – Hamilton (NZ) – EVENT Cinemas Chartwell
27 – Carlsbad CA – Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas La Costa
27 – Laguna Nigel CA – Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Laguna Nigel
27 – Pico Rivera CA – Cinépolis Pico Rivera
27 – Rancho Santa Margarita CA – Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Rancho Santa Margarita
27 – Vista CA – Cinépolis Vista
27 – Westlake Village CA – Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Westlake Village
27 – Jupiter FL – Cinépolis Jupiter
27 – Miami FL – Cinépolis Coconut Grove
27 – Winter Garden FL – Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Hamlin
27 – Howell MI – Historic Howell Theater
27 – State College PA – The State Theater
27 – Kansas City MO – Tivoli Cinemas
27 – Dallas TX – Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Victory Park
27 – Euless TX – Cinépolis Euless
28 – Wellington (NZ) – The Embassy Theatre
28 – Sebastopol CA – Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol
28 – Mystic CT – Mystic Luxury Cinemas
28 – York PA – Small Star Art House
28 – Newport RI – Janes Pickens Theater
28 – Mystic CT – Mystic Luxury Cinemas
28 – El Paso TX – Alamo Drafhouse

1 – Baton Rouge LA – Manship Theatre
1 – 3, 9 – 10 Hudson NY – Time & Space Limited
2 – 3 Long Beach CA – The Art Theatre
3 – Canberra ACT (AUS) – Capitol Cinemas Manuka
3 – Castle Hill NSW (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Castle Hill
3 – Cronulla NSW (AUS) – Greater Union Film House Cronulla
3 – Shellharbour NSW (AUS) – Greater Union Cinemas Shellharbour
3 – Sydney NSW (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas George Street
3 – Chermside QLD (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Chermside
3 – Maroochydore QLD (AUS) – BCC Cinemas Maroochydore Sunshine Plaza
3 – Robina QLD (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Robina
3 – Oaklands Park SA (AUS) – EVENT Cinemas Marion
3 – Cheltenham VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Southland
3 – South Yarra VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Jam Factory
3 – Sunshine VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Sunshine
3 – Wantima South VIC (AUS) – Village Cinemas Knox
3 – Innaloo WA – EVENT Cinemas Innaloo
4 – 5 – Newton NJ – Skylands PAC
5 – Berkeley CA – Rialto Cinemas Elmwood
5 – San Francisco CA – Roxie Theater
5 – 7, 17 -Toronto, ONT – Hot Doc
6 – Chicago IL – Music Box Theatre
6 – Schnectady NY – Proctors Theatre
9 – Monterey CA – The Golden State Theatre
11 – Salem OR – Salem Cinema
24 – Asbury Park NJ – Showroom Cinemas

3 – Stamford CT – The Avon Theatre Film Center
3 – Vicksburg MS – Strand Theatre
6 – 7, 16 – Olympia WA – Capitol Theater
8 – Sedona AZ – Sedona Performing Arts Center
15, 25 – South Burlington VT – Palace 9

May 3 – 4 – Pittsburgh PA – Carnegie Science Center
June 18 – Bethlehem PA – SteelStacks at ArtQuest

***Post-screening discussion with Billy Cox

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  1. Manic Wing
    #1 Manic Wing 9 November, 2015, 19:11

    I believe the bulk of this footage was already oficially released on VHS and Laserdisc in the Eighties, not sure why they say it was sitting in a barn unseen for years. I’m very happy to see it finally get an official DVD release though!

    Reply this comment
  2. Billy K.
    #2 Billy K. 24 January, 2019, 04:42

    The problem with many music documentaries/biopics, is that you hear all kinds of buzz about it……..and then something happens….never seems to get it to the people that really want to see it.

    Citing a few examples……the “An American Band” movie, about the Beach Boys, was supposed to be premiered at the fan convention, but the producers decided to deny showing it, at the last minute.

    This basically killed any enthusiasm by fans for the movie.

    In the case of the “Wrecking Crew” movie, you constantly heard things about the production…..music fans were anticipating the movie…..but many of the fans that wanted to see it, didn’t know it was out. Then it came and went.

    The Hendrix biopic starring Andre 3000 was not handled well, either. Many people that wanted to see it in theaters(again) didn’t get a chance to.

    These are but a few examples where music biopics and documentaries get all botched up, in promoting it to the audience that really wants to see such films.

    I personally would like this one to do well, but I am not optimistic, given the track record of such films.

    Reply this comment
  3. Jimbo
    #3 Jimbo 24 January, 2019, 13:00

    what about Denver?

    Reply this comment

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