Jimi Hendrix’s life has been pored over so many times that a cursory overview is, at best, questionable and worse, a farce. “Hendrix” is about as perfunctory as they come, a jaunt through the landmark events of his professional life without the benefit of his music or a lead actor capable of expressing the guitarist’s charisma. Show coincides with the 30th anniversary of his Sept. 18 death, as does the release of a fabulous new boxed set from MCA; these unrelated projects share little in common.
What separates this Showtime biopic from the plethora of network and VH1 musical made-fors is the obvious: nudity, group sex scenes, rampant drug use and cursing. Hendrix was a man overwhelmed by virtually everything in his life — his talent, finances, women, drugs, race and the people who surrounded him — and the script by Hal Roberts, Butch Stein and Art Washington explores that well. Beyond that, there’s little insight into rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential guitarist.
Telepic begins with a documentary crew interviewing Hendrix (Wood Harris) in his London flat in 1970. The scenes, shot in black and white, present Hendrix’s theoretical mindset, a concept that’s certainly the most interesting aspect of this pic.
As in virtually every other film ever shot about a musician, flashbacks take us from the place of his death to the place of his birth, Seattle, where young James is being handed a guitar by his father Al (Dorian Harewood). Faster than you can say ” ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” Hendrix has said his last goodbye to his mother, been through the Army and moved to New York, where he is backing established R&B stars and living with Faye Pridgeon (Vivica A. Fox).
From there it’s a highlight reel: Cafe Wha? gig leads to management deal with Chas Chandler (Christian Potenza), which leads to a London trip, the creation of the Experience, a gig with Cream, name change to Jimi and the infamous tour with the Monkees that lasts one gig.
Hendrix dissolves in a haze of drugs, women and free spending as he hits the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and, along the way, talks often of expanding his musical vision. The Experience disbands, and his drug use gets worse until he’s so incapacitated at a gig that he can’t play; he finally moves to London in the hopes of restarting projects that his management deemed not commercial enough. Ron Terry (Christopher Bolton) is both an executive producer of the telepic and the character who showed Hendrix the path — FM radio — to seeing his goals fulfilled.
Wood doesn’t quite have Hendrix’s mannerisms or distinct speech pattern down, and as convincing as he is as the dazed musician, there’s no sense of the joy that Hendrix experienced and demonstrated in such public venues as the “Dick Cavett Show.” His relationships with women are all depicted as haphazard, and the members of the Experience, Noel Redding (Kristen J. Holden-Ried ) and Mitch Mitchell (Christopher Ralph), pretty much resent him from early on.
Leon Ichaso’s direction is neither exciting nor cumbersome but certainly takes no risks when it comes to depicting Hendrix’s state of mind. Curiously, though, only when Hendrix is out of it does the camerawork tell a deeper story than what’s being described in the dialogue.
Costuming is consistently strong as Hendrix’s outfits are dead-on, whether onstage or off. Nevertheless, the preponderance of thong underwear on the women is out of sync with the times.
Without access to his songs or performances, telepic really suffers. Hendrix is seen performing Bob Dylan tunes, “Hey Joe,” “Wild Thing” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” and while the music is accurate in the notes, the feeling and voice are severely lacking. For anyone interested in the Hendrix legacy, rent “Jimi Plays Berkeley” or purchase the new boxed set from MCA. That’s where the greatness is evident.