Can You See Me?
The best Jimi Hendrix film… ever! But will you be allowed to see it, asks Mark Paytress
In a basement studio a stone’s throw from the offices of Channel 4 and the British Film Institute, a documentary film, no, make that the ultimate documentary film on Jimi Hendrix is being shown to a select audience of three. A fourth person hovers in and out of the room. He is the director, Peter Neal, who in 1967 shot that famous footage of Jimi playing “Hear My Train A-Comin’” on a 12-string acoustic. This formed part of his 30-minute Jimi Hendrix Experience short, the first genuine attempt to capture the Hendrix phenomenon on film.
Thirty years on, Neal’s contribution to our perception and understanding of Jimi Hendrix ought to be enormous. But it’s quite possible that the film on which he’s been working for the last five years, a rough cut of which is unfolding in front of me, might never go beyond this room. Think: a movie that tells it like it was, in the manner of John Lennon: Imagine, but with a poetic panache rare in rockumentaries. Think again: the film, Room Full Of Mirrors, may become the first victim of the internecine spat between two competing factions for the art and soul of Jimi Hendrix. (A fuller account of this battle appeared in last month’s issue.)
The problem, as Janie Hendrix-Wright, President of Experience Hendrix, told me last month, was that the film was “still on the very, very back-burner”. Fair enough, you might think, given that the family has its own plans for the Hendrix legacy, which it wouldn’t to confuse with product emanating from the previous Leo Branton/Alan Douglas administration, who commissioned Peter Neal’s film.
It was her additional comment, that “it hasn’t been up to what we would like it to be” which is mystifying. Having seen the full two-hour edit, which Neal intends to trim down to 90 minutes, I cannot begin to imagine a more effective, true-to-life portrayal of the life and work of Jimi Hendrix.
“The basic premise for Room Full Of Mirrors was to allow Jimi to explain himself,” says Neal, who remains passionate about the progressive agendas unleashed during the 60s. After sifting through various documentary sources, he pieced together an autobiographical script, which provides the film with its narrative motor. Though this in-his-own-words approach necessitates an actor’s voice, any credibility gap is quickly overcome, and like those other from-the-grave noir classics Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, you’re soon gripped and engaged.
While there’s no wise-crackin’ Billy Wilder to write the script on this occasion, the quotes have been well chosen, allowing the facts of Jimi’s life to entwine with more personal thoughts that reveal much about the man’s motivations. As he accepts Chas Chandler’s offer and leaves New York for England, Jimi’s explanation is, “I might as well go, ’cos that’s the way I live my life.”
I can’t recall whether “Highway Chile” plays on the soundtrack at this point, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised; the binding together of music and narrative is simply stunning throughout. This is where so many directors can get hideously unstuck; thankfully, Neal draws from the full range of Hendrix’s musical palette and is on the mark almost every time. Any film biography of Jimi Hendrix that announces itself with a stunning unreleased take of “Voodoo Chile”, with all its portents (“Well the night I was born, Lord I swear the moon turned a fire red”), is obviously on the right track.
While under no illusions that his role is in any way neutral, director Neal has attempted to make Hendrix the centre of the film. That might sound obvious, but as he says, “It could so easily have been other peoples’ ideas of Jimi”. Those who recall the interview-heavy documentary made by Joe Boyd back in 1973 will know precisely what he means. Instead, the usual benchmarks (festivals, splits, busts) are secondary to a total immersion in Jimi’s world: the boy who thought growing up in poverty in Seattle was “a drag”; the rock superstar who aimed his Electric Church music at the “potentially lost”; the visionary who searched for the sixth sense he called “free soul”.
Room Full Of Mirrors also depicts a man remarkably in tune with the dynamics of the wider culture. When the aquatic fantasies of “1983”, here illustrated with collages of Jimi, liquid faces and cosmic travel, give way to “House Burning Down”, which plays over images of Martin Luther King and flame-filled riots, it’s as powerful a depiction of the countercultural dilemma as you’ll ever see.
There are very few talking heads in the picture. Nor are there complete performances of songs — if you want those, then in-concert footage of Jimi at Monterey, Woodstock, Berkeley, Maui and the Isle of Wight is all obtainable elsewhere. Instead, Neal’s film offers a tapestry of archive footage (mostly of Jimi and the band, sometimes newsreel extracts to illustrate a theme) and stills, which he then manipulates into a spectacular study of Jimi and his music. It’s such powerful stuff that longtime buffs will have trouble believing that the movie wasn’t somehow sanctioned by Jimi.
I felt that the film probably deserved the complete “Star-Spangled Banner” from Woodstock, rather than an extract, but this was atoned for by the astute inclusion of some noodling from “Jam Back At The House” shot at the same concert. “I don’t think I’ll reach the point where I’ll ever be satisfied,” says the ‘Jimi’ voiceover. Point made.
Perhaps it’s the willingness to tackle Jimi’s life as honestly as possible which makes Room Full Of Mirrors unpalatable to the new guardians of his work. Jimi might have cared for his family, but he was hardly a ‘family man’; he will always be a countercultural icon and Peter Neal understands that. Jimi might have smiled a lot and showed kindness to children, but he was also an artist with a vision that ran the full emotional gamut from hope to despair. And Neal’s film makes no secret of that, either.
It takes you on parachute jumps and to John Lee Hooker’s house; from Greenwich Village to Vietnam; Bing Crosby to Nelson Mandela. In short, it’s one of the most satisfying rock films I’ve seen, one that dares to inhabit a parallel universe to Jimi’s music — and survives. It would be tragic if it was destined to remain in captivity.
Mark Paytress, Record Collector, July 1997
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