Memorial Day in May 1970, and at the Berkeley university campus Jimi Hendrix is scheduled to play tonight to his adoring fans, having recently played Woodstock and consolidated his position as the most exciting guitarist around. But all is not well in the United States of America, for the wave of the nineteen-sixties social revolution has broken on the shore of a very disillusioned seventies, and the student unrest is merely one major news story in the nation under President Richard Nixon, the war in Vietnam being another. Here, as Hendrix and his band rehearse and do a soundcheck, we see outside the venue protests have been organised and even the movie Woodstock is being picketed because the hippies believe they should see it for free...
They wanted to see Hendrix for free as well, to the extent of attempting to break down the doors of the hall he was performing in, demonstrating the preoccupation with being entertained without paying any of the entertainers any money did not begin with the age of internet downloads - indeed, Hendrix was about to visit The Isle of Wight Festival where much the same mood almost ruined that event. But perhaps more importantly for him, when this concert was recorded he had a mere four months to live before his drug addiction took his life, not heroin as you might expect, but his girlfriend's sleeping pills of which he downed an overdose and passed away soon after. For that reason, efforts like Jimi Plays Berkeley, though a shorter example, were held up as precious documents in the following years.
Works featuring Hendrix were popular midnight movies when that was a "thing", played at weekends around midnight where the audience could get high (or not, it wasn't compulsory) and indulge themselves in a late night head movie, and as one interviewee points out here, quite often not only was Hendrix high when he played, but the crowd he was performing for was as well, his spaced out guitar jams the perfect accompaniment to your own mind-expanding trip; now that the man was deceased, getting off your face while listening to his albums or attending a showing of a film such as this were the best ways of communing with the Hendrix sound. See the vast spectrum of those colours in the music! Touch those swooping, intricate guitar noodlings! But this particular example might have resulted in a bad trip.
That was because director Peter Pilafian was intent on painting a picture of the era that Hendrix was about to wave goodbye to, and the footage of the concert was interspersed with images of student protest against the war and actual rioting (one sobering shot has young folks reading about the Kent State killings, where the National Guard opened fire on protestors, as if to wonder if that fate awaits them). The ironic thing was, as an ex-G.I. himself, Hendrix was in favour of the Vietnam War, or supported the troops at least, so what he would have thought of this juxtaposition of his music with politically charged clips would have been interesting to find out, not that he ever saw the production completed (he even dedicates one song to American soldiers, the audience look on oblivious). As to the quality of his stylings, he was still an extremely accomplished player, though his voice did sound as if the drugs were taking their toll, but if there were run throughs of material like Johnny B. Goode and Voodoo Chile that he could do in his sleep by this point, he was professional enough to put on a good show. Those two girls immediately in front of him certainly think so: its touching to see them so enraptured by Hendrix, a legend in his own short lifetime, and afterwards.