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Television Review

'Hendrix' Only Hints at Musician's Art and Genius

September 16, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're a guitar freak, all you need to know about "Hendrix," Showtime's original movieabout the rock innovator, is that the first time we see young Jimmy, long before the hip name alteration, playing blues chords by the side of a river, his hands' positions don't even come close to matching the music he's supposedly making.

If you're a '60s pop culture freak, the only thing you need to know is that in a montage of news clips from the era, we see the Beatles landing in America before the JFK assassination.

But if you're an aficionado of TV bio-pic cliches, then you're going to love every minute of this.

From the format (a supposed filmed interview session with the star just days before his Sept. 18, 1970 death as a launching point for his life story in flashbacks) to the series of forces holding him back (controlling girlfriend, greedy manager) that provide the exaggerated dramatic beats, this is pure formula--exactly the kind of thing Hendrix determinedly avoided with his own art.

And his own art is exactly what's missing most here. This movie was made without the cooperation of the Hendrix estate, so his actual playing and songs are completely absent from the soundtrack--instead there are simulations of songs Hendrix covered, such as Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and the Troggs' "Wild Thing." " 'Purple Haze' is being played every hour, on the hour," says Chas Chandler, the guitarist's "good" manager, of radio exposure. If only we got to hear it.

Even accepting the musical handicap, the rest of the story is woefully deficient in exploring the nature of Hendrix's genius. There are hints of him being internally tortured or lost (tied to first the emotional distance and then the death of of his mother when he was young), but this is only manifest in his sex-and-drugs indulgences, rather explicit, since this is cable, and not in his artistic evolution.

The term "visionary" is tossed about, but never an effective portrayal of the vision or of its pursuit is seen. Such highlight clips as him jamming with Eric Clapton in London in '66, lighting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival and, of course, transforming "The Star Spangled Banner" into the anthem of the Woodstock nation at that '69 festival come and go with little context or insight.

Wood Harris gives the title role a game effort--adequately catching Hendrix's mannerisms and distinctively flittery speech cadence. Billy Zane is a suitable, understated antagonist as the greedy Michael Jeffrey, though both his London accent and droopy mustache seem constantly on the verge of falling off. Christian Potenza may fare best of the supporting players as the sympathetic co-manager Chandler. Others in the cast include Vivica Fox as early girlfriend and manager Faye Pidgeon and Christopher Bolton as music promoter Ron Terry.

The real-life Terry was the behind-the-scenes "expert" and executive producer, along with Neil H. Moritz (producer of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Urban Legends") and Lloyd Segan. With his history--he allegedly talked Hendrix into playing at Woodstock--Terry must bear the bulk of the blame for the hollowness of the exercise. More egregiously, he also takes the blame as the producer of the movie's music--competent simulations of the Hendrix sounds, but not even close to replicating the magic.

* "Hendrix" premieres on Showtime on Sunday at 8 p.m. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).

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