Earlier this month, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1968 double album, Electric Ladyland, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a new box set featuring previously unreleased demos, alternate takes, and a live bootleg. Pick up a copy here or stream the album in full below.
There’s an energy to Jimi Hendrix that you won’t find elsewhere. It’s technical prowess with a grin-and-shrug attitude, a style of cool that infects anyone in range. His fluid sound is admittedly smooth for how much it rolls and crashes like waves. The man was capable of making his guitar conjure up anything, whether it was a feverishly distorted psychedelic wilderness or the charming take of a jive poet over the sound of a blues-rock dissection.
Hendrix belongs in movies because there’s an immediate understanding between the filmmaker and viewer. Whether the onscreen characters rely on Hendrix’s catalog or the scene reveals freedom, truth, or action by way of the track’s sly and unruly sound, Hendrix delivers in full. You hear a man who was more than his music, and his music sounds like more than one man.
He makes movies better because he embodied a category of verve that didn’t have an obvious runner-up. His songs belong where they are in films because, at some point, the director had to ask, “What else would even work there?”
These are 10 movies where nothing else would.
10. “VOODOO CHILD (SLIGHT RETURN)”
HIT AND RUN (2012)
Sometimes, Jimi Hendrix is welcomed to a movie scene simply because there’s action. While this film doesn’t have layers to its inclusion of Hendrix, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” certainly does make this scene better. After his criminal past (and former underworld associates) catches up to Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard), he has a lot of explaining to do to his very surprised and obviously ticked-off girlfriend, Annie Bean (Kristen Bell) — in the middle of a car chase.
The guitar’s opening riff playfully sneaks its way into the argument scene’s tail end, hinting at coming change in scenery. The rest of the band comes in as Bronson, once a getaway driver, barrels off the road and onto an abandoned military base. Thus comes a car chase that could double as a car commercial, with Bronson readily handling his vehicular maneuvers and Hendrix handling business on his guitar — an exercise in mastercrafts that looks and sounds fun as hell. Sometimes, that’s all you need from Hendrix.
09. “IF 6 WAS 9”
EASY RIDER (1969)
What movie better embodies the new freedom that the 1960s delivered? The suburbs became a dated option instead of the future, and sexual intimacy evolved into a free-loving spectrum — all to the begrudging bewilderment of the straight-laced generation before them. The power in America shifted in a way, and older denizens were dumbfounded by the proud freak flag of weird and wild. At a glance, it was the same country, just flipped on its head. So when the ultimate counterculture cinema experience came in the form of Easy Rider, a song like Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” was surely a necessary add.
As uninhibited bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) prowl the cities and countryside of the American landscape, with add-on George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), Hendrix sings: “White-collar conservatives flashing down the street/ Pointing their plastic finger at me/ They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die/ But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high.” Like a singing statesman of the scene, Hendrix coolly and confidently declares he can handle what’s coming at him and the country itself, all as the easy riders of the movement keep on.
08. “PURPLE HAZE”
WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP (1992)
Even a legend like Hendrix, as widely beloved as he was and continues to be, transcending the boundaries of selected group interest, could prove an especially sacred icon, one that comes with fan-installed boundaries. Such is the case when Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) hears “Purple Haze” coming from the car stereo of Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) while Hoyle’s girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), rides shotgun. Perplexed by a dude as white as Billy being a fan of Hendrix, Deane inquires why and gets a stuffy generic reply of “I like to listen.” Deane is beside himself, witnessing a white man who can’t jump toss back the most throwaway of answers. It’s the absolute minimum effort of reasoning for a music fan, and Hendrix is owed more. Hendrix deserves to be felt, breathed in like air, not studied as a test. Deane explains further, “There’s a difference between hearing and listening. See, white people, ya’ll can’t hear Jimi. You’re listening.” But then he gets a lesson of his own when Gloria tells him that Jimi Hendrix had a white drummer. It’s a conversation that reveals the racial politics at play in the movie while showcasing the dynamic of the characters, all thanks to a Jimi Hendrix song.
07. “MAY THIS BE LOVE”
In a Cameron Crowe flick, no song is just thrown in. Each and every track is selected, reviewed, and debated before making the cut — unless, of course, there’s a song that’s simply destined to be in there. This is one such jam. In fact, it may be the most important tune in the movie (and I say that as someone with a serious love for Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart”). In the film, Linda Powell (Kyra Sedgwick) and Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott) are reluctant romantics, unsure what the future holds for them and hesitant to find out. While the two do dishes together, a dish slips and smashes across the kitchen floor. As they clean up the mess, the pair wistfully recount their lessons learned from relationships long done, all while a beautiful song aptly named “May This Be Love” plays in the background.
Linda finally sighs and admits, “Oh, I love this song.” Steve has no response. Instead, he watches her drift off into her own memory bank as he too settles into himself. Then that moment — the moment! — breezes in and a kiss seems imminent and inevitable, there in a Gen X apartment with their backs against the cabinets, feet draped across the linoleum floor. As they lean in toward each other, their eyes sparkling, Linda suddenly remembers her laundry and tears herself away. Steve’s left frozen, bewildered by the present, even if it seems familiar and obvious, as Hendrix sings: “I can see my rainbow calling me through the misty breeze of my waterfall.” Even when your surroundings seem perfect, there may be more distance to cover.
06. “VOODOO CHILD (SLIGHT RETURN)”
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993)
While stealing metal roofing from homes in Belfast, Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) finds a moment of levity in a city besieged in a war between British forces and the Irish Republican Army. Conlon uses a busted pipe as a guitar to act like he’s playing Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” when a British patrol squadron mistakes his fake musical instrument as a real gun. They open fire and Conlon scatters with his friends as Hendrix’s song wails into the movie. The young men are effective in their dodging through locals’ households and the narrow streets and winding alleyways in between, keeping their cool in the chaos.
Meanwhile, Hendrix’s assertive voice against the riotous music lends itself to the frantic scene; Hendrix sings, “I’m a voodoo child!/ Lord knows I’m a voodoo child, baby!” By the time the square in Belfast devolves into a full-blown riot, courtesy of Conlon’s equally fed-up neighbors, Hendrix is going to town on his guitar. Bricks fly onscreen as a psych-rock solo wails over it, and you feel a winning smile creeping up on at least one of the Irishman, even as the brute force of Britain comes at him — all because Hendrix can shred his guitar like a wild animal he’s successfully taming. Let the rowdy come; there’s a lesson to be had.
05. “MACHINE GUN”
A SERIOUS MAN (2009)
Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is barely getting by in his Minnesota life in 1967. Gopnik’s wife loves another man and wants a divorce while he waits to find out about his potential tenure — though there’s talk of it being rather unlikely. And then everything goes bad. Gopnik and his brother are forced to move into a motel at the insistence of his wife, who has depleted their bank accounts. Meanwhile, a student’s father threatens to sue Larry after the student may or may not have attempted to bribe him for a passing grade. Seeking truth and comfort in his Jewish faith, a desperate Gopnik consults Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), who tells him the enigmatic story of a dentist who found Hebrew characters naturally engraved in the back of a patient’s teeth, spelling out, “Help me, save me.” The sheer perplexity and impossible nature of such a thing consumes the dentist. It’s all he thinks about. It’s all he cares about. Everyday life can be revealed to be so magical and mysterious.
As the story unfolds, Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” — a furious psychedelic song about not being afraid — struts, crawls, and wails in the background. It makes the wild story seem wilder, as the dentist should be almost terrified at the profundity of his discovery. But then again, that seemed to be the recurrent truth of psychedelic rock back then, in full glorious and gorgeous bloom in the year of Gopnik’s demise, that anything is possible.
04. “ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER”
WATCHMEN (2009 )
If your moderately reformed band of costumed heroes is flying to Antarctica to confront your menacing former comrade-turned-traitor at his end-of-the-world retreat, there better be some Jimi Hendrix blasting. The fact that this song is a cover — a masterpiece written and first recorded by Bob Dylan — even plays as a parallel to the scene’s growing taste of reckoning. The original brilliance may have come from the folk-poet laureate, but there’s undeniably more energy in Hendrix’s version. He brought out the lyrical themes into the music itself, as wild as it is driven.
Here, the Watchmen themselves are a more animated copycat follow-up to the Minutemen to begin with, and this years-later worn version of the heroes rattles far more frantic, furious, and desperate than when they were in their prime. You can find further parallels in the lyrics, too, especially “There are many here among us who feel life is but a joke.” The entire catalyst of the Watchmen story is the murder of The Comedian, a “deliberately amoral” cigared antihero who saw the cruel humor in life and didn’t do much to lighten the mood. As the (literally) black-and-white vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) and the weak yet empathetic Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) barrel into the frozen landscape, all as the betrayer mastermind Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) waits in his lair, Hendrix and crew don’t let up.
LORDS OF DOGTOWN (2005)
In the early days of skateboarding, anything was possible. It wasn’t about the escape from suburbia that the hippies craved, but rather transforming suburbia itself. Empty backyard pools became a sneak-attack hot commodity, and the entire structure of a residential neighborhood suddenly benefited the wild and the willing — and Jay Adams, Tony Alva, and Stacy Peralta were three of the best.
At a house party of local skaters and surfers, Hendrix’s “Fire” plays as Adams (Emile Hirsch) spots a forlorn lady friend of Stacy. He acts immediately, in it to win it from the get-go. Jumping down to her level shirtless, as the song goes from in-scene to soundtrack for authority, Adams goes into a frenzied dance, practically a trance, around her. He turns her push into a somersault, and it’s only a matter of time until she’s running off with him down the block. While Hendrix can turn a shy guy into a bolder move-maker, he can also do wonders with someone already energetic enough to approach another partygoer like it’s their last night in town, someone who only has one burning desire.
02. “IF 6 WAS 9”
POINT BREAK (1991)
As the camera wanders through a surfer party, Hendrix’s voice comes, clear and cool above it all: “If the sun refused to shine, I don’t mind/ I don’t mind/ If the mountains fell in the sea, let it be/ It ain’t me.” While it appears that each and every local are abandoning their inhibitions, the truth is that neither of the two main characters are what they seem at surface level. New surfer on the scene Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover FBI agent, and surfer head honcho Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) doubles as the leader of a presidential mask-wearing, bank-robbing crew. They each have their own objectives and aren’t going to adhere to the other. But for now, at least for this night, it’s total freedom. Both attempt to be just surfers present for a good time, living by their own way of things. Hendrix’s effortless acceptance of whatever comes fits right in, since, as he puts it, “I got my own world to live through/ and I ain’t going to copy you.”
01. “FOXY LADY”
WAYNE’S WORLD (1992)
A song can change you for the better, if only for an instant. I’m not talking about simply revamping your mood. Music has the power to rework your entire system. Even though this is not only a scene from a movie, but a daydream sequence as well, there’s still some serious truth to it. If there’s anyone who can empower a shy, mumbly oddball to talk up a stupefy-ingly attractive babe, it’s Jimi Hendrix — this song in particular. Even though Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) and his best friend, Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers), are regulars at Stan Mikita’s restaurant, Garth’s entire posture still changes upon eyeing the blonde dreamboat behind the diner counter. When asked why he doesn’t just go talk to her, Garth spaces out and conjures up a fantasy where he’s some kind of Casanova deluxe, though still very grunged out in attire.
He puts Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” on the jukebox and instantly lip syncs and strut-dances toward his lady love, renewed with impeccable timing and unassailable confidence. Through Garth’s reborn Lothario identity, as make-believe as it is, Hendrix calls the bombshell a “cute little heartbreaker” and “sweet little lovemaker.” So much swagger pours out of this track that it’s hard to imagine a 1960s concert scene where women didn’t just melt in Hendrix’s audience. His breezily cool majesty is too much for the peculiar drummer, however, and Algar’s pelvic thrusts, much to his surprise, become entirely automatic as his body takes over, his ripped jeans popping in time and far more aggressively than he intends. But hey, that’s what Hendrix can do to someone not built for his mighty power.