Don't Touch My Jimi!

Every so often, the 1973 documentary Jimi Hendrix shows up on the True Stories network, a Starz! offshoot for fact-based tales. The film, directed by three men (including folk-rock producer Joe Boyd), is a swift and nifty bio narrated by the ghost of Jimi, who talks to the camera in a black-and-white daze. His is a stoner's mumble, the sound of turned-on-tuned-out bliss as he recounts his days playing with Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and on and on and...on. The highlights, of course, are the protracted performance clips (the man lived as though life were one protracted guitar solo, and everything in between was a waste of time), but Jimi Hendrix goes a long way toward turning myth into man.

He possessed a flower-power grin and a Black Power strut, and he belonged to no single group--not the black radicals that wanted him to do their bidding, nor the white crowds that attended his shows and bought his records; not the Brits who "made" him, nor the Americans who claimed him; not the blues scene that spawned him, nor the rock scene that worshiped him. In the end, Hendrix belonged only to history, and, in the span of just a handful of years, he gave direction to the future (he was the first astronaut in the space-rock race). But even his estimable biographers, including Charles Shaar Murray and David Henderson, have a difficult time pinning him down: Hendrix was that something other never to be deciphered, understood, or owned. Jim Morrison was rock's poet-clown in leather pants; Janis Joplin was its shrieking blooze mama; Keith Moon was its spastic, brilliant buffoon. Hendrix towered among them all, but he can't be reduced to pitch-meeting one-liner; the man was, and remains, bigger than even history's favorite sons and daughters.

But that hasn't stopped Showtime from digging up the corpse and pissing in the casket--and on the 30th anniversary of Hendrix's death, no less, adding insult to overdose. On September 17, the network will air Hendrix, the most rinky-dink, sophomoric rock-star biopic since ABC shat on the Beach Boys a few months back. Turns out it is possible to assassinate the dead: Wood Harris plays Hendrix like a grinning, acid-washed corpse, mumbling his lines, playing his guitar as though it were an accordion, and singing so out of tune even the deaf would notice. Using the 1973 documentary as its inspiration (indeed, the black-and-white interview footage with Wood is an exercise in plagiarism), and make-believe as its guide, Leon Ichaso's biopic plays like some just-say-no high school propaganda film. It manages to deify and defile at the same time, insisting Hendrix was an innocent corrupted--not a genius, not a visionary, nothing but a very lucky, very fucked-up freak.

The dialogue is banal ("Oh, that's right," says Al Hendrix, played by movie-of-the-week regular Dorian Harewood, to his son upon giving him his first guitar, "you're left-handed"); ham-fisted exposition supplants plot (even the recent A&E Biography spent a little time on Jimi's mother's death); and the only thing worse than Billy Zane's dead-animal toupee is his Brit-on-a-shingle accent. The film is occasionally an accidental hoot (such as the film's portrayal of Pete Townshend, or the way Wood Harris plays guitar without actually touching it), but more often a galling farce. Since the filmmakers didn't get the rights to use Hendrix's music, they've subbed out third-stringers no more capable of a dead-on impression than a man with no hands at all, and Lord knows a Hendrix bio without Hendrix music is like a body without blood.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky