In ruminating on the work of great artists, one group of people is sometimes overlooked: parents.
Whether they are fully supportive of the creative dreams of their children, or whether their children’s need to either seek parents’ approval or defy them serves as a catalyst for the artists’ ambitions, or if they are entirely absent, the impact of parental figures is paramount.
Early on in the superb latest installment of the “American Masters” series, “Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’,” airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, the late Al Hendrix relates in an interview that he bought his son his first acoustic guitar for $5 from a friend. “After he got good on that,” says Al, “I went and got him an electric guitar.”
On behalf of Jimi Hendrix fans everywhere, I say, “Thanks, Al!”
Directed by Bob Smeaton (“The Beatles Anthology,” “Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child”), the two-hour film traces Hendrix’s life from his childhood in Seattle, marked by an often absent mother, through his time in the Army, to his explosive, cruelly brief career as one of rock ’n’ roll’s groundbreaking and most influential figures, painting a new sonic landscape with songs like “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Manic Depression,” “Little Wing” and many more in just four short years before his death in 1970 at 27.
The producers of the series had long sought to to do an “American Masters” on the singer-songwriter-guitarist, and the Hendrix family fully cooperated with the film. It benefits greatly from that cooperation as they supplied never-before-seen performance and other footage — including snippets of home movies Hendrix shot himself — and an extensive archive of interviews, photographs, drawings, and family letters. (In one to his father, Hendrix notes, “Everything is so-so here in this big raggedy city of New York.”)
The film vibrates with music in both the perfect placement of Hendrix recordings under visuals to actual performances, from his literally fiery Monterey Pop Festival breakthrough to the famed “Star-Spangled Banner” eruption at Woodstock.
There are also a bevy of interviews, including many with Hendrix himself — his appearance with Dick Cavett is particularly enjoyable — and with his friends, family members, bandmates, paramours, and famous fans (including Noel Redding, Billy Cox, Mitch Mitchell, Eddie Kramer, and Paul McCartney), some of whom have never given interviews before.
McCartney emotionally recalls being at one of Hendrix’s first performances in London where he made his breakthrough, and notes that when the Beatles were asked to perform at Monterey and had to demur because they were in the studio, he suggested Hendrix play.
“Hear My Train” should prove illuminating for casual fans, and diehards should be pleased at the interludes with recording engineer Eddie Kramer isolating various parts of recordings — say the solo in “Purple Haze” — as well as the nuggets unearthed in the new footage.
The film does not gloss over Hendrix’s drug use or playboy ways, nor does it dwell on them, as it seeks to show his many facets, from his dedication to his instrument and pushing boundaries with it, to his showmanship to his spirituality to the restlessness of his soul.
While his death may have been tragic, “Hear” makes clear that Hendrix himself did not appear as a tragic figure to those around him, with friends recalling him as a funny guy, given to smiling and laughter, but plagued by insecurity — like so many artists.
What “Hear My Train” does best is remind us of the artist. After 40-plus years of endless commodifying through merchandise and posthumous releases and the kind of broad-brushstroke lionizing that is generally applied to artists of his caliber, it’s a treat to see Hendrix getting lost in the sound and conjuring his very special brand of magic.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.