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As a teenager growing up in a small, alienating town in Essex, seeing Jimi Hendrix’s pyromaniacal performance of “Wild Thing” on television for the first time, in D.A Pennebaker’s Jimi Plays Monterey (1986), cemented the musician’s status as a childhood hero. Movies were the dominant mode through which I became obsessed with Hendrix’s showmanship — the intimacy of Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) and Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) in particular made me feel a part of the crowds. I’ve often forgotten Hendrix’s impact on me in the past 17 years, but attending a fleeting screening of Gerry Goldstein’s long-unreleased The Jimi Hendrix Experience: The Royal Albert Hall (formerly known as The Last Experience) in the same venue where it was filmed 50 years prior presented a rare opportunity to experience those feelings afresh.
The vague billing of the film as a “one night only” opportunity by the Royal Albert Hall, and the £33 asking price for a reasonably angled seat initially added an exclusivity-tinged bitterness to the experience, sitting at odds with the recent wide release and success of the Aretha Franklin concert-film Amazing Grace. A joint introduction by Goldstein and Janie Hendrix (the late musician’s sister) clarified that the film would eventually be released to all, making this ostensibly a preview screening, but given the tumultuous legal history between their companies, only time will tell what that release looks like.
The film starts with a fairly formulaic introductory sequence, recounting Hendrix’s career up until that point — which feels somewhat superfluous and footnotes earlier footage shot by Goldstein and his collaborators into blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fragments — but once it arrives at the concert itself, its magic begins, with Hendrix speaking for himself through performances and candid moments from earlier on that day. “We’ll be turning up between every song … to protect people’s ears” jokingly announces Hendrix, before the band storms into a 10-minute rendition of “Stone Free.” During the song’s solo — throughout which Hendrix calmly keeps his eyes shut — a medium shot framing his guitar is intruded upon by a policeman who breaks his stoic character and veers into shot to stare at Hendrix’s hands on the fretboard, sparking laughter among the present-day audience. Behind the cop’s usual position as a watchful eye on the side of the stage, three intoxicated young men frantically wave their arms around, headbanging tirelessly. That small tableau within one corner of the Royal Albert Hall over 50 years ago best illustrates how the film snapshots late-60s British counterculture (and resistance to it) as much as it does a day in Hendrix’s life.
Between songs, Hendrix is seen in his home, at soundcheck, and listening back to recordings. He holds a purposeful look in every conversation, illuminating aspects of his character in a way that audio recordings might not. Those visual insights persist throughout the film; Hendrix regularly teases renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner, laughing with the audience in an awareness that his reputation precedes him. The performance of “Foxy Lady” ignites the crowd, with Hendrix laughing during its flirty bridge sequences, and keen-eyed observers can catch the regularity with which he had to adjust the tuning on his guitars due to their left-handed stringing. He finally unleashes the hinted Star-Spangled Banner performance during the encore, only to cut it short and destroy his guitar while the crew tries to keep the stack of amplifiers he’s thrown it into upright. That finally causes the crowd to erupt into the dysfunction the policemen desired to pre-empt, with concertgoers storming the stage to fight for ownership of the shrapnel.
In the Royal Albert Hall of the present — without the haze of cigarette smoke that once lingered over its slightly reconfigured layout — the film steps into the realm of expanded cinema, with elements of the past and the present spiraling into unusual echoes. The contemporary audience clapped between songs, much like the audience on screen, which felt magnified when the film cut to wide shots of the venue. That same view came with downsides, however. Modern and shorter attention spans created a steady flow of people exiting the isles to buy expensive beers, and I became painfully aware of the predominantly white, middle-class, and middle-aged audience able to afford the steep ticket prices of £17.50 and up. Considering the fact that Hendrix is one of few people of color who has been dubbed a ‘rock god’ (archaic as the moniker is, and despite the fact that the rock and roll movement liberally borrowed from pre-existing musical styles shaped by people of color), I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease around the contexts surrounding the screening, despite my enjoyment of the film itself.
Indeed, Hendrix’s placement within the hegemony of ‘guitar bro’ culture that frequently overlooks or excludes women, non-binary people and people of color is nothing new, and that press announcements for the event were largely featured in guitar magazines and “classic rock” publications was a troubling reinforcement of that closed world, complemented by a trailer that in no way does the film justice. In contrast, what worked with Amazing Grace was its marketing as an insightful and unifying concert film rather than a gospel film, granting it wider engagement and success; something that instigated multiple viewings of it in the cinema on my part, despite never really engaging with Franklin’s work prior. With a similar approach, perhaps the Hendrix film will manage to inspire new audiences too, and hopefully younger people at that, matching how Monterey Pop and Woodstock captured my attention as a teenager. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: The Royal Albert Hall is one of the best and most insightful concert films I’ve seen, but let’s hope that its eventual release taps into a wider discourse around Hendrix than just the blind nostalgia of “rock and rock hall of fame” rhetoric.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: The Royal Albert Hall screened at the Royal Albert Hall (Kensington Grove, London) on October 21, 2019. Details of its wider release have not yet been released.