The music is great, but the visuals leave a lot to be desired. That’s the most succinct way to summarize Jimi Plays Berkeley, a live performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Berkeley Community Theatre in Berkeley, CA, May 30, 1970. The camera crew didn’t bring enough film to capture the whole performance (neither the first nor second set), resulting in a 65 minute documentary that is heavily padded with non-concert footage. In some instances we hear comments from Hendrix fans, but most of the extra footage is silent and simply serves as a backdrop to Hendrix’s music. But this newly re-edited edition also includes extra performance footage as well.
As explained by John McDermott in the Blu-ray booklet, the non-concert footage was chosen as a general representation of the “Berkeley political scene.” Tumultuous protests had occurred in Berkeley throughout the ‘60s, centering on civil rights, free speech, and anti-Vietnam War sentiment. Footage of such protests is spliced in during Hendrix’s performance, particularly “Machine Gun,” covering gaps left by missing or unusable footage. While this might sound disruptive to the viewing experience, the actual concert footage is so poor you might just find yourself thankful for the variety.
Of course, this is Jimi Hendrix after all, backed by Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass. Even super grainy, badly damaged 16 mm film is better than nothing. From a musical standpoint, this is a scorching set. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is souped up, with a frantic lead vocal by Hendrix. “Purple Haze” elicits an understandably enthusiastic response from the approximately 3,500 attendees. When the camera is close enough to really watch him play, Jimi Play Berkeley is as visually compelling as it is aurally. “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” and “Machine Gun” all include newly discovered footage, offering a somewhat more complete concert experience. McDermott explains that there’s even more filmed material out there, but it hasn’t ever been turned over to the Hendrix family.
Sony Legacy’s Blu-ray does a good job of presenting the flawed footage in the best way possible. The 1080p transfer, framed at 1.43:1 according to the notes, reveals a speckled, often unfocused, heavily scratched image. The source material was obviously not in very good shape, but this is likely as good as it will ever look. Detail and sharpness are sorely lacking. Hendrix might just as well be playing in front of a featureless, black backdrop most of the time. The audio, luckily, fares far better, with robust 5.1 DTS-HD MA and LPCM 2.0 stereo mixes. The 5.1 mix really allows for a “live” experience, with equally well-defined high and low ends. Surround activity is lively, allowing the audience to be heard at an appropriate level, while the rhythm section provides plenty of thumping for the LFE channel.
The primary extra feature is the complete second set of the Berkeley concert, offered as an audio-only track. This is the same material found on Sony Legacy’s CD reissue of Live at Berkeley, so if you’re looking for portability, that might be the way to go. But here we get the full 67 minute set in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and it sounds fantastic. An eight minute video interview with the concert’s audio engineer Abe Jacob is the other extra. It’s a good piece, with Jacob putting the technical limitations of Jimi Plays Berkeley in perspective.
Hendrix fans will definitely want to upgrade to this Blu-ray of Jimi Plays Berkeley, which provides the most footage of these legendary concerts currently available. The 5.1 audio of the complete second set is a valuable bonus. Close your eyes and imagine you’re there, it’ll probably look better than the film does.