Criterion: Jimi Plays Monterey, D.A. Pennebaker, 1986

Jimi Hendrix was like a being from another planet. He showed up, transformed culture and music as we know it, and then he quickly said goodbye, leaving us to marvel at him nearly half a century later. His performance at Monterey was still relatively early in his three album career, but it was a monumental moment. He had already been immensely popular, but this was when he truly arrived, and he frankly blew people away.

The documentary is introduced with high-speed graffiti artist painting a picture of Jimi in his element while “Can You See Me?” plays in the background. He begins with a beige base as the first layer, where we can barely make out the primary features of Jimi’s face. From there he applies other paints and more layers. When he gets to the red, he sprays it seemingly randomly, but it becomes Jimi’s trademark bandana. When he is finished with his creation, the song is over and the poster boy for late 60s guitar psychedelia is clearly fashioned on the wall.

The exposition is brief, which is fine. The core element of this documentary is the performance. John Phillips narrates the origins of Jimi’s career, including beginning playing in clubs with R&B acts, being discovered and eventually managed by The Animals, who brought him to London and changed many different worlds, including Jimi’s. As Phillips puts it, Jimi “went like a fireball once he hit London.” The Experience was formed and the rest is history.

The obligatory setlist:

Saville Theater, 1967

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Wild Thing

Monterey Pop Festival, 1967

Killing Floor
Foxy Lady
Like a Rolling Stone
Rock Me Baby
Hey Joe
The Wind Cries Mary
Wild Thing

People did not know what to make of him. There are alternating shots of Jimi shredding, nonchalantly playing complicated riffs on his guitar, while making unnatural sounds on his Stratocaster. There are occasional shots of the crowd. Many are simply floored. They had never seen anything like this. Others are exuberant, moving to the music.

Even when he talked, he sounded like he was from another world. “Dig, man .. “ as he liked to say, “laying around and picked up these two cats” as he points toward Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, his Experience bandmates.

He played covers, old blues standards, and a handful of his own hit songs. This was before he had much of a body of work, like my favorite Axis: Bold as Love, which he would record next, and Electric Ladyland in 1968. One great thing about Hendrix is that his own material was not required. Covers would be staples in his live shows until the very end, because he somehow transformed them into Jimi Hendrix songs.

He was ever the showman and pulled out all the stops during his Monterey performance. During “Hey Joe”, he plays a solo while picking with his teeth, and it sounds no different than the brilliant solos he played with his hands. Later he plays another solo with the guitar behind his head, and again, it sounds perfectly fine. He effortlessly swivels and moves his guitar around, yet never misses a beat. He actually makes such complicated playing seem easy as he is completely relaxed while playing (probably thanks to chemicals).

It is the final song where things finally go bonkers. Before he covers The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” he combines the American and English national anthems into something unrecognizable and otherworldly. He uses the tremolo and feedback to create sounds. At times they sound like the driving of a car; at others they sound like a space ship.


“Wild Thing” is a relatively simple song. Even I can play the primary riff and it would be flattering to say that I’m even a beginner. Jimi takes the simple and makes it complex, and frankly just destroys the song. Between the verses, he continues to use his weapon to make sonic and beautiful sounds. Towards the end of the song, he destroys his guitar, with it still plugged in. Even in destruction, it manages to sound like he is “playing.” Finally, it burns in flames, still transmitting sound.

Backstage before the show, he and Pete Townsend had a debate as to who would go on first. It apparently became contentious and they had to flip a coin. When it was settled, The Who would go on first, but that just inspired Jimi to push his performance to another level. That he did. As his guitar was burning on stage with the crowd going out of their collective minds, I’m sure he was thinking, “Pete, take that.”

Film Rating: 9.5/10


Commentary with Charles Shaar Murray

He calls Jimi’s performance one of the epochal single performances in 60s rock and roll. Jimi was great because he had roots in real rhythm and blues, whereas the Englishman just had the records. Nobody had done the type of things that Jimi did with guitars. Stratocasters were not designed with this type of playing in mind. Nobody envisioned this.

What was amazing is that this performance and the heights he reached in his career were a mere year before he had left the USA for London. He was an avid drug user, and was on acid for this performance, and that inevitably helped with his creativity and innovation with sounds and feedback.

It is interesting that he played Bob Dylan songs. Dylan was an influence in many ways. Not only did he write some of the best songs of the era, but he had no voice and still managed to sing with success. Jimi was self-conscious about his own voice, which was hardly the strong choir-like voice of R&B, and probably would not have tried singing his own material if it were not for Dylan. He paid tribute by playing the folk hero’s songs, yet like all other covers, he played them in the Jimi way. He played “Like a Rolling Stone” with the same chords that he played “Wild Thing,” and Dylan’s lead guitarist was in the audience and bore witness to how the song transformed in Hendrix’s capable hands.

His genius is that he plays so casually. On “Rock Me Baby,” he was playing keyboard, horn and guitar riffs all on his guitar, while singing. If you looked at his playing, you would barely notice. He made the complicated seem mundane. His guitar would get out of tune from his playing, but he was able to gradually bend the strings back into tune while playing. Nobody else could do that.

Additional Audio Excerpts – There is plenty of biographical information, including details about his rise to success and arriving at Monterey. This is an audio recording of 45 minutes.

Interview with Pete Townsend – “Jimi was out of his brain, on acid, and wouldn’t discuss the question” of who went on first. They were both going to introduce pyrotechnics for the first time, so part of the argument was who would do it first. Townsend’s perspective was that he didn’t feel like following Jimi because Jimi was far more talented. Jimi’s team did not see it that way, as it was more of him wanting to be the first to do something special.

Posted on January 18, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I need to see this. Great review – thanks.

  1. Pingback: Top 20 of 1986 | Criterion Blues .....

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