As an entry into the PBS American Masters series, it’s little surprise Hear My Train A Comin’ doesn’t take a particularly novel approach to its subject. Still, the film progresses assuredly and vividly from one significant point to another as it covers the life and career of the one of the epochal figures of Sixties rock, Jimi Hendrix.
Interviews with those who knew (and knew of) Jimi Hendrix at each stage of his artistic progression weave in and out of the footage, accompanied by appropriate snippets of the man’s music. Hear My Train A Comin’ introduces such characters as Hendrix early employers, The Isley Brothers, without undue drama, allowing their voices and their roles in the story to speak for themselves. Rightly so too, because with the entry of Chas Chandler, the logic of Hendrix’ development becomes inescapable: the bassist of The Animals left this rootsiest of all Sixties groups with the deliberate intention of breaking Jimi Hendrix in England with a song that emblematized the folk-rock era of the time, Tim Rose’s “Hey Joe.”
The small quick steps in this sequence of events ultimately mirror the speed with which Hendrix career progressed as well as the smooth interpolation of the varying footage. Which should come as no surprise, given the director is Bob Smeaton, who has worked on a number of similar projects including The Beatles Anthology. Still, the appearance of figures with their own profound influence on the time, such as Paul McCartney, as well as Hendrix Experience musicians, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, suggest even further how Hendrix galvanized the evolution of psychedelic scene of the time.
Journalist Bob Santelli accurately denotes the timing of Hendrix’ appearance on the scene, while short spoken intervals with long-time Hendrix recording engineer Eddie Kramer (suitable fodder for a documentary in its own right), plus excerpts from Hendrix appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, reflect the methodical approach maintained throughout the documentary: Hear My Train A Comin’ accurately highlights various aspects of the Hendrix’ personal life and professional career as well as offering technical insight into the music that was beginning to have such effect on the luminaries of the day.
For instance, seeing footage of Hendrix playing “Sgt. Pepper” is far more provocative than just reading about it. The stylish aspect of the film’s graphics become as detailed as the story itself as it approaches the point of the album debut Are You Experienced?. In turn, the film vividly depicts Hendrix as a striking example-perhaps the most striking-of how music inspired fashion of the times, rather than the other way around, as it happened in the Sixties.
As the story moves past Hendrix’ pivotal appearance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, the explication of events in Hear My Train A Comin’ does turn somewhat superficial. The movie offers but skeletal detail surrounding the short-lived Band of Gypsys and the subsequent reformation of the original Experience, not to mention the role played by then manager Michael Jeffrey (recall his introduction as Chandler’s business partner tossed in almost as an aside early in the commentary). With more in-depth sources covering these notable chapters in Hendrix life, the documentary here becomes more suitable for the novice than the devout Hendrix fan.
The circumstances surrounding Hendrix’ death are also given somewhat short shrift, but the avoidance of innuendo and rumor is laudable, particularly given the inclusion of honestly melancholy reflection from writer David Fricke, which gives way to Kramer’s own doleful remembrances. The latter’s solemn mention of the word ‘genius’ applied to the man with the guitar compensates for some of the overly-effusive commentary offered during the latter half of the film.
The bonus features on the DVD highlighting the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 as well as the New York Pop Festival roughly two years later make for a study in contrasts, especially if viewed in sequence, previewed with a 1967 British TV spot from the ‘Top of the Pops’ series. Steve Winwood sagely suggests it was merely a natural progression for the flamboyance of Hendrix’ youth to give way to a more serious musical approach, shorn of the early showmanship the likes of which he was pressured to replicate through the latter days of his live performances.
Notwithstanding hypotheses on Jimi Hendrix’ state of mind and body in the weeks just prior to his death, this footage offers little evidence of any detrimental effects of his psyche on his musicianship. Quite the contrary, as the body English he displays in Miami seems directly derived from his own immersion in his playing. And although he appears stoic to a fault in July of 1970, his deft guitar on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” offers proof his skills hadn’t appreciably diminished. The German Experience show, their final, reaffirms that perception: more than the rainbow garb and general demeanor, the force of Jimi’s instrumental attack-not to mention the commitment to play that compelled him to stay a day later than scheduled due to weather delays-suggests his fundamental integrity remained intact till the end.
The extra content that lengthens the DVD to over three hours running time heightens the impact of Hear My Train A Comin’, thus rendering it as close to definitive a project as might be executed, based on an artist with the expanse of talent and influence Jimi Hendrix exhibited.