"Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin'," which premieres Tuesday on PBS, inducts the (very) late guitarist, singer and songwriter into the PBS hall of "American Masters."
It's a sometimes-enlightening, regularly exciting, always watchable documentary that hits the main points of a short life. Still, viewers not already versed and invested in this music and milieu might want a little deeper context.
Hendrix, who died at 27, has been gone for 43 years now. He was most assuredly a creature of his time, with his headbands and ruffles and psychedelic philosophizing, and yet he exists outside of time, one of those artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or Bill Monroe you could study forever, profitably, and never crack their secret. Graceful in music, movement and speech, he could make a simple introductory utterance, like "I see that we meet again," stick in your mind like a song.
"American Masters" films tend to accentuate the positive, but the effect here is to rob the subject of some of his complexity. In this soft-edged telling — which has the vaguely managed feel of an authorized biography — Hendrix becomes a simple shy kid, a self-effacing, sui generis phenomenon, preternaturally talented but also extremely hard-working, who just wanted to play his music, hang out with women and get a little high. But mostly play his music.
His genius is flatly asserted — invoked but not really evoked — by record executives, publicists, road crew, old girlfriends, family members and bandmates (most of the latter speaking through old clips from beyond the grave). Paul McCartney and Steve Winwood are enlisted to recall Hendrix's effect on the London scene, where manager Bryan James "Chas" Chandler brought him to get famous — though nothing is heard from Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend or Jeff Beck, his closer counterparts in the transformation of the electric guitar and the foundation of the power trio.
Most valuable is the commentary of Eddie Kramer, who engineered all the albums Hendrix released in his lifetime and a few posthumous ones, and helped build Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York. Kramer plays that now-familiar game of breaking down songs to their component parts, highlighting a triple-tracked guitar part here, a soloed vocal there.
The overarching narrative is a familiar one: the artist trapped by his own success, whose need for change is stymied on the one hand by audiences who want more of the same and on the other by business associates — who also want more of the same. Hendrix himself, pouring money into Electric Lady, needed to earn, though he spoke repeatedly of needing a rest. And then he died, suffocating on his own vomit while knocked out on wine and sleeping pills.
Some of these images are familiar, Hendrix performances having provided key moments in the films "Monterey Pop" and "Woodstock." Others — including home movies and some "recently uncovered" footage from the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, with Hendrix looking especially rakish and turning in a tight, assertive and freshened "Foxey Lady" — offer revelations small and huge.
'American Masters: Jimi Hendrix'
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)