Fifty years after his death at age 27 in 1970, Jimi Hendrix remains the most acclaimed rock guitar player ever. It’s a distinction so ingrained in his persona that it can make Hendrix feel like a foregone conclusion for music fans. What else is there to know about him? He came, he recorded three classic studio albums, he set a lot of guitars on fire, he died, the end. That’s it, right?
This feeling is compounded by the relative lack of film depicting Jimi in full bloom. Even casual music listeners have seen the stock footage of Hendrix blazing away on “Killing Floor” during his star-making performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, or Jimi melting hundreds of thousands of hippie minds with his pointedly violent rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. More informed rock students will have surely checked out Joe Boyd, John Head and Gary Weis’ 1973 documentary “Jimi Hendrix,” or Bob Smeaton’s slicker three-hour 2013 overview, “Hear My Train A Comin’.” But even those films rely upon many of the same iconic (if also overly familiar) images that all of us already have burned into our brains.
We get to see the master in a different context, which will make him look and sound fresher to those who believe they already know the entire story.
The primary value and pleasure then of “Electric Church,” a documentary about Hendrix’s performance at the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival, is simply that we get to see the master in a different context, which will make him look and sound fresher to those who believe they already know the entire story. The film captures Hendrix at a moment that would only seem momentous in retrospect — filmed that July, we see Jimi play what amounts to a fairly standard festival gig only two months before his death. The performance itself might strike some aficionados as rather ordinary as he sticks mostly to his biggest hits. He avoided the trailblazing Band of Gypsys funk-rock material he previewed at the Fillmore East at the start of the year, in part because the guitarist dissolved the band soon after — the circumstances make it extraordinary.
It’s somewhat frustrating that the documentary doesn’t show the entire Hendrix set, which was released as an album in 2015 as “Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival.” Instead, about half of the film is made up of talking heads — including Hendrix super fans like Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett — who testify to Hendrix’s greatness and indulge in some inevitable hyperbole about the importance of the Atlanta Pop Festival. (Apologies, but in spite of the film’s claims, this wasn’t “the last great pop festival.”)
But of course, no one can describe what Jimi does nearly as well as Jimi can show you.
But of course, no one can describe what Jimi does nearly as well as Jimi can show you. Along with his still-thrilling technique — in which he somehow manages to play synapses-shredding leads and the best rhythm guitar you’ll ever hear simultaneously — Hendrix was an intensely visual musician. Yes, he was one of the great showmen in rock history — playing with his teeth or flicking his tongue in unison with his guitar leads, a seduction game that he rigged in his favor from the start — but simply watching him hold that upside-down guitar with his enormous yet graceful hands is a joy on par with watching Fred Astaire dance or Michael Jordan slice up a zone defense.
The most glorious moment in “Electric Church” occurs near the end, when Hendrix tears into a song he wasn’t able to release during his lifetime, “Straight Ahead.” As he plays, commingling blues lines with hard-rock riffs like only he could, Independence Day fireworks start shooting in the sky behind him. At one point, it appears that Jimi is actually playing along with the fireworks. He was near the point of his own demise, and yet so alive. On the ground, but already playing among the stars.