Photo: Daniel Teheney/Authentic Hendrix LLC
Director John McDermott Talks New Jimi Hendrix Documentary, 'Music, Money, Madness … Jimi Hendrix in Maui'
Jimi Hendrix accomplished more in five years than most artists achieve in a lifetime. Songs like "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze" and "Voodoo Child" are classic rock staples. His innovation on the electric guitar influenced generations. He's responsible for seminal moments now emblazoned in the annals of rock: the time he set his axe ablaze at the Monterey Pop Festival or the time he played an instrumental version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a Sunday morning coming down at Woodstock. In the late 1960s, Hendrix was also the pensive leader of America's counterculture movement.
The Seattle-born musician left us far too soon. On Sept. 18, 1970, the 27-year-old died at the bohemian Samarkand Hotel in Notting Hill, England. The cause: asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates. Fortunately for fans, old and new, Hendrix left a cache of unreleased music. Now, thanks to archivist John McDermott and the Experience Hendrix family-run company, his lost music allows us to discover another untold chapter in the life of this mercurial musician.
The new narrative: the backstory on the making of Rainbow Bridge, a bizarre and controversial independent movie released in 1971. Directed by Warhol acolyte Chuck Wein, the project was financed by a $500,000 advance from Reprise Records, with the promise of a Hendrix soundtrack.
In his new documentary, Music, Money, Madness … Jimi Hendrix in Maui, McDermott attempts to set the record straight about this boondoggle. The feature-length film, which drops Nov. 20, includes never-before-released original footage and new interviews with those who were there. (Live In Maui, a two-CD/three-LP package that includes the free Maui concert at the foot of the Haleakalā volcano on July 30, 1970, in its entirety, arrives the same day.)
On Wednesday (Nov. 18), the GRAMMY Museum will host an exclusive premiere of Music, Money, Madness as part of its COLLECTION:live programming. The event will also include a live panel discussion featuring some of Hendrix's closest family members and associates, including younger sister Janie Hendrix, former bassist Billy Cox, engineer Eddie Kramer and McDermott.
Ahead of the premiere, GRAMMY.com caught up with director John McDermott to discuss his personal Hendrix history, his insights on Music, Money, Madness … Jimi Hendrix in Maui, and why, 50 years on, the groundbreaking electric guitarist's music still resonates.
Before we talk about the documentary, I'm curious how you landed this dream job as "keeper of the Hendrix vault" in the first place.
In the late 1980s, I was working as a writer, producer and a director on various music projects. I was always fascinated by the Hendrix story. I had previously written about him for a major music magazine, and that opened up a friendship with Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer. From there, we worked on a book together, Hendrix: Setting The Record Straight, which came out in 1992. It was not a traditional biography. We presented Jimi through the eyes of those closest to him.
The idea of a tribute album came next [Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix]. Released in 1993, the record featured artists like Seal, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Some proceeds went to a United Negro College Fund scholarship fund created in Jimi's name.
Shortly after, Eddie heard Jimi's father [James Al Hendrix] was involved in litigation over the ownership of his son's legacy, including the rights to Jimi's music, name and likeness. The Hendrix family asked me to help. Eventually, Al was victorious and all rights were returned to the Hendrix estate. That's when Al asked me to manage Jimi's music catalog. It's hard to believe that was 25 years ago. Since our first archival releases of unreleased Hendrix music in 1997, our mission has remained the same: keep Jimi in front of as many fans as possible. As a fan myself, I only came to truly appreciate Hendrix after his death … I never saw him live. For me, he was always this extraordinary artist with a fascinating story.
Speaking of fascinating stories, Music, Money, Madness … Jimi Hendrix in Maui certainly fits the bill. It's a captivating tale of a strange yet seminal time for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
What makes this show so fascinating is its uniqueness. Three weeks before he was playing to 500,000 [people] at the second Atlanta International Pop Festival. Then, he arrives on Maui to play for 700 people seated by astrological order at the side of a volcano … that was something only Jimi could do.
Why did you decide to tell the story of the making of Rainbow Bridge and the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Maui sojourn in the summer of 1970?
We've told the arc of Jimi's story before: from birth to death in Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child . In other archival releases, we've examined temporal moments such as the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock.
The Maui performance is always one fans request the most. With this film, we wanted to drill down and recalibrate what this whole thing represented. If we were going to do it, we wanted to do it in a way that provided the context for this story and share all of what exists of film—using the complete concert performance at Haleakalā to tell the real story. Rainbow Bridge was clearly not a Jimi Hendrix project, but it only could have taken the form it did with him dying. Had he lived, it never would have taken this form. Maybe it might have been just an instrumental score for a surfing documentary … no one really knows.
Since Jimi died in September, less than two months following these concerts, the Rainbow Bridge movie and accompanying soundtrack played a larger role in Jimi's initial posthumous legacy. With this movie, we want to reframe that story.
How did you reframe the story to specifically focus more on Jimi's story and the free Haleakalā concert?
First, we recovered original footage from Jimi's time in Maui. This documentary was more about extracting that new footage and providing fresh context. In Rainbow Bridge, there [were] only 17 minutes of performance footage that was haphazardly put in the movie. Mitch [Mitchell] had to overdub his drums at Electric Lady Studios just to save the audio.
At the same time, you wanted to present an objective story, correct? How did you achieve this balance?
Definitely. You get the Hendrix side of the story listening to new interviews with surviving bandmates Mitchell and Billy Cox; Warner Bros. record executives; his engineer, Eddie Kramer; and others close to Jimi. We chatted with some of the original participants in the movie and included interview clips with [Rainbow Bridge director] Chuck Wein to tell their side.
Fans need to understand how this chapter in Hendrix's career became blown up because of his death. To hear his bandmates talk about that time in Maui … that fascination that attracted me decades ago happens anew for kids around the world who appreciate the phenomena that was Jimi Hendrix. Take the Beatles film Eight Days A Week. Those who lived through that understand about the girls screaming at their shows—the tsunami and energy about the creation of that music—but that movie showed a new generation of global audiences what The Beatles really meant. In the same way, you can't fathom how amazing Jimi was until you see, hear and learn more about him.
Why now? Did you plan the film's release to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Hendrix's death?
Not at all. Restoring the footage and the original audio took time. This is a project we had on the broiler for quite a while. We wanted to take time to get it right and speak to the right people. There is a temptation sometimes to get the easiest folks to speak, but often these people don't shed the greatest light on a subject. Originally, we had hoped to screen it at the Maui Film Festival this past June, but because of the pandemic, that didn't happen.
Why, a half-century since the electric guitar innovator and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient died, is the Hendrix legacy still important to preserve?
First, Jimi alone keeps his legacy alive. He is the guy who does the heavy lifting. Why is his legacy still so important? Compare it to what people would give to hear just one more wire recording from Robert Johnson. Because Jimi died so young, he left so many questions unanswered. Every one of these projects we release is another clue to that puzzle, from both a sonic and a visual perspective. Hendrix's appeal [resonates] with young people and remains with original fans. They, along with a growing global audience, see him as an ongoing touchstone: No matter the country where they are from, their gender, their race or their age … something about Jimi cuts right through.