Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
One of the problems with documentaries about genius is that after enough talking heads get through with the subject, the word itself begins to lose all meaning. Say anything enough, and it’s just a string of letters that form a pattern someone deemed sensible; “genius” suffers from this syndrome more than, say, “fork” or “aardvark.” Listen to enough people call a guy a genius, and the natural response is, “Prove it.”
The best part of “Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’” is that director Bob Smeaton has the benefit of proof. Jimi Hendrix was a man who deserved the “genius” mantle, and not only because of the nice things people like Paul McCartney or Steve Winwood say about him. It’s also because of what Hendrix showed about himself.
Archival footage is a boon for any music documentary. Smeaton is a veteran of the genre, most notably directing Festival Express, The Beatles Anthology, and other Hendrix offerings. But there’s a difference between the average performer and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s performances are integral to his legend, if only because of how freakishly charismatic he was onstage. It is not learned behavior; it is innate. His body gyrates, his tongue flickers, his eyes close, his face expresses pure ecstasy. It’s fun to watch him play because he looks like he’s at his most natural, like there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. (Considering the frequency with which Smeaton’s documentary touches on Hendrix’s preternatural ability to woo women, perhaps there was something he’d rather be doing.) Hendrix doesn’t just get passively called a genius—he earns it in this footage.
So why watch this American Masters entry and not Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, or any other extended Hendrix live performance? “Hear My Train A Comin’” is at its most fun when Hendrix is on stage, but the interview portions have their charms as well, especially McCartney’s, who speaks of Hendrix in the reverent tones of the other talking heads, but with added warmth and humor. There’s also Hendrix’s sound engineer, Eddie Kramer: As the documentary progresses, it becomes clear that recording music was Hendrix’s passion and his live performances essentially funded his desire to record. It’s the little moments with Kramer—like when he isolates the tracks on “Little Wing” to demonstrate the kind of firepower that Hendrix was working—that are especially illuminating.
Set up like a traditional biography, “Hear My Train A Comin’” recounts the major chapters in Hendrix’s life: his childhood in Seattle, his service in the military, the integral trip to London that would take him from side musician to frontman, his subsequent superstardom, and his 1970 death. It’s a sunny take on Hendrix’s life, authorized by his estate and controlled by Hendrix’s stepsister Janie, who is famously prickly when it comes to her stepbrother’s legacy. (The upcoming Andre 3000-led biopic All Is By My Side, for instance, won’t use any of Hendrix’s music.) Offstage, Hendrix is portrayed as shy and humble, rarely without a guitar in his hand. In scenes from an interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Hendrix bristles at Cavett labeling him one of the most talented guitarists in the world. How about the most talented guitarist sitting in his particular chair, Hendrix counters. His drug use, while disputed, is largely glossed over, as are most off-stage antics. The doc also sticks only to Hendrix’s life, ignoring the battles over his estate that lasted longer than the musician lived.
The one thing that always stands out about Hendrix’s biography, though, is how quickly it all happened. His life as a pop icon begins and ends in London, but that spans only four years—beginning with the trip where he mixed and mingled with the Brit rock elite and ending with his death at 27. That’s four years to make his mark. Watching him perform, it’s easy to see how Hendrix achieved legendary status so quickly.