Jimi Hendrix had done it all, or so it seemed. In three whirlwind years, the one-time journeyman guitarist had transformed himself into a counterculture shaman. Who else but Hendrix would find himself playing a gig on the side of a volcano in the middle of an ocean? Yet only two months after that concert in July 1970, he would be dead.
Performance snippets from the volcano concert on the Hawaiian island of Maui surfaced posthumously in a 1971 movie, “Rainbow Bridge.” Hendrix’s presence wasn’t enough to save the movie, which bombed, a mere footnote in the era of “Easy Rider” knockoffs. The Hendrix “soundtrack” was cobbled together without a shred of input from the artist. A disaster all around — or was it? “Music, Money, Madness: Jimi Hendrix in Maui” wades through the muck to offer the clearest glimpse yet of this undeniably indulgent, often misunderstood, yet oddly moving moment from Hendrix’s final days. Not only does the new film make sense of the “Rainbow Bridge” debacle, it presents Hendrix in brilliant form, a redemptive interlude in the year that eventually broke him.
By most accounts, the Maui set was one of Hendrix’s finest from his last year on the planet, when constant touring and business anxieties pushed him to exhaustion and eventually the drug overdose that led to his death on Sept. 18, 1970. The Maui show would be his second to last in America, but he doesn’t perform like he’s fixing to die. On the contrary, he eagerly jumps into conversation with his bandmates, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox. Some might call it jazz, a noise symphony, avant-garde blues — Hendrix music exists outside of genre. The trio locks in and then leaps outside the restrictions of arrangement and song structure, in search of new doorways. Hendrix doesn’t so much play notes or chords as sculpt them into new shapes. He glances at Mitchell while bending sound, and the drummer answers with volleys and fills. Cox keeps the arrangements grounded; he’s the guy who keeps the light on in the kitchen window while a tornado rages.
Beyond the visceral charge of seeing Hendrix and company in peak form, “Music, Money, Madness” is a film about a film. It portrays “Rainbow Bridge” director Chuck Wein, aka “the Wizard,” as an ambitious multi-tasker who tried to simultaneously subvert mainstream culture and profit from it. The Harvard grad seduced Andy Warhol into working with him by introducing the pop icon to Edie Sedgwick, the model who would become Warhol’s muse. Then Wein talked Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffrey, into funding a cosmic surf movie that would follow the nonlinear, acid-soaked lead of “Easy Rider.” Jeffrey in turn made a deal with Hendrix’s label, Warner Brothers, to finance the project in return for a new Hendrix album: a soundtrack for the movie.
Artistically, the guitarist was at a crossroads.
Hendrix was a reluctant participant, but he was backed into a corner. He needed money to build his dream studio, Electric Lady, in New York City, a sanctuary where he could finally create the music of his dreams, and he was growing tired of constant touring. Artistically, the guitarist was at a crossroads. In the wake of three increasingly adventurous studio albums (“Are You Experienced,” “Axis: Bold as Love” and “Electric Ladyland”) Hendrix was working out where to go next.
After collaborating with the same musicians — Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding — in the Jimi Hendrix Experience for his first three albums, Hendrix broke up the band before his legendary Woodstock headlining set in 1969 and opened a revolving door of band lineups in his final 12 months of life. The short-lived Band of Gypsys with Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums recorded a live self-titled album at the dawn of the new year in New York, with a funkier sound, then imploded. He booted Miles and then reunited with Mitchell to create a new rhythm section with Cox for the 40-date 1970 tour that would include the “Rainbow Bridge” concert. In between shows, he wrote and recorded music for his long-delayed fourth studio album, and sprinkled some of the new songs into his setlists, including “Freedom,” “Dolly Dagger” and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).”
For Hendrix, the “Rainbow Bridge” gig offered a respite from the grind. For the film’s producers, the concert represented a Hail Mary to salvage what was turning into a cinematic debacle. Wein had grander ideas. He envisioned the concert as the final piece in his “preparing-the-way-for-the-aliens” theme. Billed as “The Rainbow Bridge Vibratory Color/Sound Experiment,” the concert was staged on the side of the Haleakala volcano, with a teepee as a dressing room and a generator-powered sound system. In 1970, Maui was not nearly the populous tourist mecca it is today, but the laid-back home to an array of fishermen, surfers and indigenous people, some of whom were driven to the free concert by Wein’s minions. The audience was arrayed at the show in sections based on each attendee’s astrological sign, and led in an “Om” chant by a group of Hare Krishnas in the moments before Hendrix took the stage.
For all this period-piece grooviness, the music that day bristled with a joy and purpose that must have been a rarity for Jimi Hendrix in 1970. As an artist and a rock star he could be inscrutable. But on stage, guitar in hand, his emotions were as transparent as a cloudless sky. We see Hendrix smile, enveloped in his music, free to be himself for a couple hours.