‘Electric Church’ director introduces filmgoers to a Jimi Hendrix experience

Apr 04, 2019

By Ed Symkus Globe Correspondent March 28, 2019
Sam Feinsilver/Authentic Hendrix LLC

A lot of great acts appeared at the second — and final — Atlanta Pop Festival, held July 3-5, 1970, in the little town of Byron, Ga., about 100 miles south of Atlanta. Among them, the Allman Brothers Band, Mott the Hoople, Ten Years After, Grand Funk Railroad, Spirit, and Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. But ask any aging hippies who they were there to see, and they’ll tell you Jimi Hendrix. The self-taught master of the Stratocaster took the stage shortly after July 4 turned into July 5 and introduced that late-night’s version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience: Billy Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums, “and yours truly on saxophone.”

The band opened with a hot “Fire,” segued into “Spanish Castle Magic,” then “All Along the Watchtower” (briefly in the wrong key),” “Foxey Lady,” and “Hey Joe.” The hits kept on comin,’ the crowd ate it up, and Hendrix even played a couple of tunes that weren’t yet on record: “Freedom” and “Straight Ahead.” The terrific performance was caught on camera, as was the whole festival, by Steve Rash, who would go on to direct “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978) and “Can’t Buy Me Love” (1987). But a feature film never appeared because, though Warner Bros. liked a demo that Rash cut and optioned the rights, it subsequently said no because Warner’s own “Woodstock” was so successful at the time and the company didn’t want a competing pop festival film in the marketplace.

Decades passed. Enter Newton-based John McDermott, who manages the music catalog and co-produces recording and film projects at Seattle-based Experience Hendrix, the company run by Jimi’s sister, Janie Hendrix. McDermott, 55, now a diehard Hendrix fan, was only 6 when Hendrix died on Sept. 18, 1970. In 1992, McDermott got together with longtime Hendrix recording engineer and producer Eddie Kramer to co-write the book “Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight,” which helped McDermott land the gig at Experience Hendrix in 1995.

Years earlier, while researching the book, McDermott found the Hendrix festival footage in a vault at Warner Brothers. Well after establishing himself at Experience Hendrix, he approached Janie with an idea for a film of it, which resulted in “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church,” a feature that tells the story behind the festival, including archival footage of the event, interviews McDermott shot years later of locals remembering it, appreciations of Hendrix from a number of musical luminaries and, 33 minutes into it, a huge chunk of the Jimi Hendrix Experience set. Except for a brief run on Showtime in 2015, that footage hasn’t been seen. The film never had a theatrical release. Till now. Produced under the auspices of Experience Hendrix, it’s being distributed, for limited screenings, through Abramorama, the company that also had “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.”
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McDermott, who directed the film, sat down to chat about it recently over lunch at Doyle’s Café in Jamaica Plain, in advance of a screening Wednesday at Arlington’s Regent Theatre.

Q. You missed the whole Hendrix thing when it was happening. How did you get into his music?

A. I was exposed to it through my dad, who exposed me to everything from Chuck Berry to Muddy Waters. Jimi was somebody I thought of in that context. I had heard “Red House,” which of course is a blues song. Then later, I heard all the other hits. All of these guys, whether it was Dylan or the Beatles, came at it and created something entirely new. But there was something about Jimi that married the blues and rock in an interesting way, from his visual approach to his skill on the guitar. He was a fascinating package.

Q. You’ve written a lot about Hendrix over the years, and produced videos of him for Experience Hendrix. What led you to directing this film?

A. I’d seen the Hendrix footage in 1990, so I knew it was great. When I got to Experience Hendrix, I knew the footage was there because Jimi had made a deal with Steve Rash back in 1970 to have his footage separated from the rest of the bands. Because of his stature, he negotiated that if you want to film me, I get the film. The idea I discussed with Janie Hendrix was that Atlanta was important because it was his largest US audience. There were 500,000 people there. So, in 2013, I reached out to Steve, and he was super excited about it. He wanted to make his film about the festival itself, and he had undeveloped footage of the other acts and of the crowds. We said we would give him some Jimi to put in that if he, in turn, would give us the footage that he had shot. He said yes.

Q. Did you always plan to begin and end the film with archival footage, but keep the whole middle section intact with just the Hendrix performance?

A. Look, nothing articulates Hendrix better than Hendrix. He truly was, in his time, a counterculture artist. There isn’t a whole host of interviews of him, so when he’s on the screen, just leave him, let him do the work. By that point in the film, you understand what it took for him to get there, and what it took for the people to get there, and endure. So now, you’re seeing what they wanted to see, which is him playing.

Q. The film looks and sounds great. Was it all restored?

A. Yes, we went to FotoKem in Burbank and had all of the footage rescanned right from the original source elements. The same with the sound. The original sound was done by CBS Records because they had a number of acts on the bill. They did a hell of a job recording it, but Eddie Kramer did the sound on the film. Because we decided to start fresh, when we remixed it, we went back to the original one-inch eight-track tapes.

Q. Do you have a second-favorite rock artist or band?

A. Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time. As the timeline continues to move forward, the value of his music — and I don’t mean from a commercial sense — only increases because you realize how special and unique it is. But at the same time, what’s so fascinating about Hendrix is that this is the guy who did it without setlists, without light cues, without pre-thought-out encores. The whole idea of Hendrix walking onstage and saying, “Let’s forget about yesterday and tomorrow; let’s build our own little world here right now” — that’s a pretty amazing statement to an audience. Also, something that was so special about him in a live setting was the simplicity of it. It’s one guy, three pedals, and a piece of wood with six strings. There was no magic going on. It’s just him!

Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church

At the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington, April 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $13-$15, 781-646-4849

Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).