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Classic Artists: Jimi Hendrix - The Guitar Hero DVD Review

Jimi Hendrix: The Guitar Hero - Classic Artists DVD cover art -- click to buy DVD from Amazon.com Hendrix: The Guitar Hero
Movie & DVD Details

Director/Producer: Jon Brewer / Narrator: Slash

Interview Subjects: Ginger Baker, Bev Bevan, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, Joey Covington, Charles Cross, Henry Diltz, Micky Dolenz, Alan Douglas, Kathy Etchingham, Harvey Goldsmith, Delores Hall, Leon Hendrix, Lemmy Kilmister, Jim Marshall, Dave Mason, Zoot Money, Ben Palmer, Paul Rodgers, Slash, Stephen Stills, Chris Squire, Mick Taylor, Alan White

Running Time: 109 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated / Video Debut: September 14, 2010

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $19.98 / DVD Release Date: September 14, 2010
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Slim Digipak in Cardboard Box

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I'm typically more a fan of individual songs than of musical artists. Without iTunes open, I'd be hard-pressed to name ten songs from even some performers that I'd identify as favorites. I just tried to do that for Jimi Hendrix and came up with eight songs and all three studio albums. I wouldn't consider myself a Hendrix fan, but I do like what I know.
I even wrote a big interdisciplinary American Studies report in high school on his music as a reflection of the nation. (I didn't get an excellent grade, but it was a lack of American history not Hendrix that lost points.)

In general, I'm also not a big fan of talking or writing about music. For me, the art comes entirely down to personal taste and isn't worth elaborating on. Or seeing performed live. I've never really paid for a concert and that includes seeing Lady Gaga, years before she would become Lady Gaga, lead-singing for a band at her high school's dance. But that's another story.

The purpose of this rambling introduction is to establish my frame of reference in approaching a review of Hendrix: The Guitar Hero, an unauthorized documentary I never would have sought out on my own but one whose subject I respect enough to give it a look.

Legendary musician Jimi Hendrix is the subject of the new documentary whose title -- "Hendrix: The Guitar Hero" -- seems to be a pretty transparent play for video game search traffic. Slash of the Guns N' Roses was a young man of five when Jimi Hendrix died, but that doesn't keep him from narrating and talking about the guitarist like he knew him.

Hendrix claims the sixth entry in the Classic Artists series that Image Entertainment began releasing in 2006. Past subjects have included Cream, The Moody Blues, Yes, Jethro Tull, and various artists who performed in Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon in the 1960s.

Much more about Hendrix the musician than Hendrix the person, the film begins with his arrival in London in 1966. It proceeds to cover the four years of fame he enjoyed before his life came to an end two months shy of his 28th birthday. The documentary seems limited by the footage and music at its disposal. Regarding the latter, we actually don't hear a great deal of Hendrix's work, just a handful of songs performed live. The soundtrack is no slouch, however; fine, familiar songs by other artists from the period oddly play with as much frequency; Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man", Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'", and so on.

As far as visuals are concerned, we get a lot of talking heads. Fortunately, these are some valuable heads (albeit not Talking Heads). We hear briefly from Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones' Mick Taylor. Other surviving contemporaries interviewed include Jefferson Airplane drummer Joey Covington, Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills & Nash), The Monkees' Micky Dolenz, and Eric Burdon (frontman of The Animals). Historian Charles Cross provides some authority, while Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash talks like he was there and knew Hendrix, in addition to supplying the film's sporadic narration. More interesting than the musician subjects are a couple of people with personal ties to Hendrix, his younger brother Leon Hendrix and his ex-girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. The two supply the biggest hints to the man's manner and inspirations.

Jimi Hendrix talks about performing the same songs over and over again in this black & white talk show clip. Leon Hendrix gives us a clue as to what his brother Jimi would have looked like in his sixties today.

Of course, a documentary about Jimi Hendrix has got to be about the music. The film avoids a rigid "then came this song" approach, instead covering the success of The Jimi Hendrix Experience from all angles (well, perhaps not so much those involving his two late British bandmates, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell). Attention is paid to the techniques, the showmanship, the look, the sound, the race barriers, the drug use, the young death, and the unrealized plans, with everyone providing superlatives to encapsulate Hendrix's briefly enjoyed talents.
Though well-edited, the film feels a bit flabby at 109 minutes for maintaining such a specific focus. It would benefit from trimming some of the on-camera discussions or having more interesting photographs and video to lay them over.

As is, The Guitar Hero is a pretty decent retrospective. It is not, as its case claims, "the final word" on Hendrix. And it's a far cry from a definitive documentary, not that it was striving for that. Such an undertaking would require a broader view and appearances by some of the bigger musicians referenced here, Bob Dylan, the two surviving Beatles, active Rolling Stones, and the two surviving members of The Who.

Are there better Jimi Hendrix documentaries? Most likely. Are these worse? I'm sure. Timed to the 40th anniversary of Hendrix's 1970 death, this movie falls squarely in the middle, remaining interesting throughout but needing more than aging musicians reflecting on rock 'n' roll's Renaissance to deliver the impact befitting its subject.

Unrated, the film does feature some mild swearing and nudity. Rock 'n' roll, baby.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though favoring talking heads, The Guitar Hero relies on a wide variety of material in its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The archive footage shows evidence of its age and humble origins. It also doesn't always lend itself to being cropped to fill the 16:9 frame. The new interview footage is clean and fairly sharp (the interviews of Kathy Etchingham and Hendrix's aunt Delores Hall a little less so, suggesting they were shot a few years back with lesser cameras). You can't have the highest of standards for something culling from a mix of dated sources, but the DVD illustrates that the filmmakers have done an admirable job of making everything presentable enough and consistent (with the exception of subpar speaker identifying captions).

You would think a documentary about music would make use of the 5.1 channel setup for which most of today's DVDs design for and many viewers are hooked up. Alas, Guitar Hero offers only a plain stereo soundtrack. Not that the few often amateurish recordings of Hendrix and The Experience's live performances would lend themselves to an immersive remix, but the sampled studio songs certainly could have provided some depth and breadth. Nevertheless, the basic mix is fine, enduring nothing worse than a few peaks in volume. Sadly, neither subtitles nor closed captions are provided.

Hey hey, he's a Monkee. At least I think that is Davy Jones in a striped tank top. The silent 8mm bonus footage isn't the clearest. Jimi Hendrix does a little guitar-playing with his teeth in The Experience's Marquee performance of "Hey Joe." Now that's definitely a Monkee. Micky Dolenz (see, his name isn't that hard to spell, menu and topic cards!) recalls drug experimentation in his extended interview.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Bonus features begin with music photographer Henry Diltz's interesting but unsightly silent 8mm footage of The Monkees (10:47) having fun at an amusement park and backstage and onstage at a gig.
Even if we can deem this relevant (as the documentary explains, the Experience briefly opened for The Monkees), it was begging for commentary from the cameraman.

Next and better is The Jimi Hendrix Experience's full performance of "Hey Joe" at the Marquee in London (3:30). Like the previous clip, it is sampled and matted in the film. A little abrupt at the start and finish, the piece is nonetheless professionally shot and presentable, preserving Hendrix's teeth strumming in glorious black & white.

Extended Interviews give us a little over an hour of further recollections by the following nine subjects: Dave Mason (4:43), Joey Covington (3:02), Micky Dolenz (10:16), Charles Cross (6:08), Leon Hendrix (20:49), Stephen Stills (6:18), Slash (4:57), Mick Taylor (7:00), and Lemmy Kilmister (4:25). Just about every one of these men has stories worth hearing, from Dolenz on playing under the influence to Leon's childhood sibling experiences. With the interviewer's questions sometimes heard, this raw footage gives insight into the documentary's process. I'm not sure that alone makes all this worth preserving, though, because it's easy to see why most of it was deemed insufficient for the already interview-heavy feature. Perhaps the best reason for viewing this is if you're particularly fond of any of these guys, who make more of a personal impression here than in the film.

The on-disc extras conclude with two photo gallery slideshows, supplying a mix of personal and professional Hendrix and Experience stills, most in black & white. The second (1:25) showcases Diltz's work (discussed in the included booklet), while the first (1:05) features some topless girls.

The Guitar Hero is packaged in a slim Digipak that slides sideways into a half-redundant cardboard box. In a welcome and all too rare touch, the Digipak's pocket holds a nice companion booklet. The 20-page document offers a biography that fleshes out his upbringing (with some minor spelling, grammar, and style woes), commentary from Diltz on important Hendrix performances he saw, and plenty of predominantly black & white photos and concert ads glimpsed at in the movie.

The 16:9 main menu lifts a montage of old concert footage and photos from near the end of the documentary. Submenus are static and silent.

This painting of Jimi Hendrix in the starry universe makes for a powerful near-closing image.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While absolutely not the definitive Jimi Hendrix documentary, Hendrix: The Guitar Hero offers a reasonably engaging reflection on the man's music. It could use more showing than telling, and more video and audio of Hendrix himself. Still, the figures interviewed provide a meaningful celebration of his art, craft, persona, and brief life's work. Though you'd think Hendrix fans might enjoy this nice little package, they also might be underwhelmed by it if they have more than a passing appreciation for the man. It is probably best suited for a rental from Netflix or iTunes.

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Reviewed September 16, 2010.



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