'Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church': Film Review

Courtesy of Abramorama
A must for Hendrix fans.
1/31/2019

Jimi Hendrix's last major concert appearance in America is the centerpiece of this documentary featuring footage that went undeveloped for decades.

Considering that he's been dead for nearly 50 years, Jimi Hendrix is certainly prolific. Case in point: Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church, the concert film documenting his performance at 1970's Atlanta Pop Festival, shot only two months before his untimely death. Receiving a limited theatrical release, this unearthed cinematic nugget provides further evidence, not that any was necessary, of the legendary performer's magnetism and musical virtuosity.

The event, breathlessly described in the film's opening graphics as "the last great U.S. pop festival," took place over July Fourth weekend. Despite its moniker, it wasn't located in Atlanta but rather in Byron, Georgia, a small town 100 miles away that was woefully ill-equipped for the sudden influx of young people, whose ranks (according to the film) swelled to 500,000 for Hendrix's set, his largest-ever U.S. audience. The other performers on the bill included Bob Seger, the Allman Brothers Band and Grand Funk Railroad, among many others, but Hendrix was clearly the marquee attraction.

The footage of his performance amazingly sat undeveloped in cameraman Steve Rash's barn for many years. Captured on 16mm color film, Hendrix's set comprises a little more than half the running time of the documentary, which also provides contextual info about the festival via archival footage and contemporary interviews. (Rash went on to direct such Hollywood films as The Buddy Holly Story and Can't Buy Me Love.)

You can sometimes feel the padding in the film, which includes comments by such musicians as Rich Robinson, Kirk Hammett, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Steve Winwood and others, all of whom, not surprisingly, attest to Hendrix's brilliance. Paul McCartney recalls, "We all played guitar, we all knew a bit. But he seemed to know more than us." We also hear from Hendrix's bandmates Billy Cox and the late Mitch Mitchell, who offer more personal, but not necessarily more scintillating, observations. "He had the whole ball of wax," Cox says admirably. He does offer the interesting tidbit that Hendrix began playing "All Along the Watchtower" in the wrong key before realizing his mistake.

Georgia's then-governor Lester Maddox, a staunch segregationist, wasn't exactly enthused about the event taking place in his state. "I like festivals, and I like to have fun," he claims, unconvincingly, in a vintage news clip, before expressing his trepidation about the festival. Several townspeople recall marveling at the sight of the young "hippies" getting naked and taking drugs in full view. The undressing was as much tactical as philosophical, as the temperature hit 104 degrees over the weekend.    

The concert footage, shot at night (Hendrix didn't take the stage until 12:30 a.m.), proves dark and grainy. But it successfully captures his typically incendiary renditions of such classics as "Purple Haze," "Voodoo Chile," "Hey Joe," "Foxy Lady" and the closer, "The Star-Spangled Banner," the last accompanied by fireworks in the distance. It was to be Hendrix's last major show before his death, and we should be grateful that it's come to light, and for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

Production company: Experience Hendrix LLC
Distributor: Abramorama, Sony Legacy Recordings, Experience Hendrix LLC
Director: John McDermott
Producers: Janie Hendrix, John McDermott
Director of photography: Steve Rash
Editor: Paul Rachman

89 minutes