In the waning hours of his young life, Jimi Hendrix was photographed in London sitting outdoors at a table set for tea for two. Only the guest resting in the other chair wasn't a friend, musician or lover. It was a guitar.
That image, taken not long before Hendrix's death at age 27 on Sept. 18, 1970, of drug-related asphyxiation, encapsulates the thrust of Jimi Hendrix - Hear My Train A Comin', a new two-hour documentary. After a short theatrical run that starts tonight in Philadelphia, the rock doc will air as part of PBS' American Masters series on Nov. 5 (9 p.m. ET, check local listings).
Also out Nov. 5 from Experience Hendrix and Legacy Recordings are an expanded version of the film on DVD and Blu-ray ($13.98-$24.98), as well as a recording of previously unreleased live tracks from Hendrix's gig at the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 ($11.98 CD, $27.98 audiophile vinyl), rare footage of which is included in the documentary.
"Everyone talks about the women or the drugs, but the most important thing to this man was his music," says director Bob Smeaton, whose rock-doc credits include Festival Express and The Beatles Anthology. "He was a shy guy, but as (Paul) McCartney says (in the film), when Jimi was on stage, 'it's like he was let out of jail.' "
Smeaton scored not only the enthusiastic Beatle, who gave him more than twice the promised time ("You could tell he really loved Jimi - they were both left-handed, and Jimi did Sgt. Pepper in concert the week after that album came out") but also colleagues (Steve Winwood), admirers (Dweezil Zappa) and a number of friends and lovers who haven't appeared on film before, including his pre-fame, Harlem-era paramour Faye Pridgeon.
"A lot of documentaries tend to feature famous people who didn't really know the person, so we wanted to make sure we had people who really knew Jimi," says Janie Hendrix, the Seattle guitarist's stepsister and president of Experience Hendrix, which oversees the legend's ever-expanding catalog.
Adds Smeaton: "These people were attracted to him before he was a rock star, when he was struggling but still had that magnetism."
The result is an intimate portrait of a shy genius who was never without his guitar, strapping it on first thing in the morning and often falling asleep with it at night. Such dedication yielded a searing, blues-based sound that was heading in new directions when Hendrix took the stage in Florida in 1968. The release includes 11 songs from that gig, which was recorded live by Hendrix's engineer Eddie Kramer.
"It's a little bit of history," Janie says of Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival, a concert that was put on by Michael Lang, whose next big production was called Woodstock. "Songs start out one way and start morphing into other songs," best exemplified in a version of Foxy Lady that quickly abandons the radio hit for a psychedelic flight of fancy.
The Jimi train will keep rolling: Next up are DVD releases of famous concert dates, and Janie is in talks with Hollywood producers about a long-awaited biopic about her brother. "It's really happening," she says. "But it'll be done right."
What any big screen version of Hendrix's comet-like life would have to capture is the musician's "incredible sense of mystery," says Smeaton. "Going into this (documentary), I always felt Hendrix was a bit of a mystery to me. And now after learning so much about him, I still feel he's a mystery. Which is what makes him forever interesting."
Oct. 25: Philadelphia (The Trocadero Theatre)
Oct. 27: San Francisco (Balboa Theatre)
Oct. 28: Portland, Ore. (Hollywood Theatre)
Oct. 30: Los Angeles (Grammy Museum)
Oct. 31-Nov. 4: Miami (O Cinema)
Nov. 2: Seattle (EMP Museum)
Nov. 4: Jacksonville, Fla. (Sun-Ray Cinema) and Pleasantville, N.Y. (Jacob Burns Film Center)