Performance artist Laurie Anderson is searching for Jimi Hendrix.
The 51-year-old avant-garde musician is at home, listening to Hendrix clips on the Internet, looking for a song to cover. Later, she'll program new versions of one of the songs on her computer and play along with it on her custom-designed violin; she'll end up with a recording that sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a science-fiction movie.
She does all this on camera in "Searching for Jimi Hendrix," a documentary that chronicles 11 artists recording covers of songs by the pioneering rock guitarist who died in 1970. The movie, available on video and DVD, and an accompanying soundtrack album were released two weeks ago and are intended to showcase Hendrix's often-overlooked composing talent. The project features Anderson, Mexican-American rockers Los Lobos, Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, country-rocker Rosanne Cash and several others.
"[Hendrix] lacked getting credit as a great composer," said Alan Douglas, who produced several Hendrix sessions toward the end of the guitarist's life and who served as executive producer of the soundtrack. "[This was] designed to show that Jimi's songs stand out in any genre."
The documentary, which aired this year on the cable channel Bravo, was made by D.A. Pennebaker -- who filmed the seminal Bob Dylan tour documentary "Don't Look Back" -- and Chris Hegedus. Pennebaker and Hegedus have collaborated throughout the '90s on such films as "The War Room," which chronicled Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign.
When interviewed in the documentary, Anderson says, "When I told people I was working on ['1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),' from Hendrix's Electric Ladyland], they were like, 'Which one is that?' "
"I chose it 'cause it has an orchestral, beautiful melody," she says. Anderson plays violin and keyboards on "1983" (RealAudio excerpt), and her boyfriend, rocker Lou Reed, plays guitar.
"[Laurie] didn't like Hendrix," said 44-year-old singer/bassist Jesus Xiuy Velo of Los Illegals, who contributed a version of "Little Wing" (RealAudio excerpt). "By the end of the movie, she loved him."
Los Illegals recorded what Velo called a "Chicanofied" take on Hendrix's song, mixing the band's Mexican-American punk style with some Hendrix-esque feedback. "[Our track] is a true blend of who we are as cultural people and musicians," Velo said. "It's the most honest and best f---ing version [of the song] I've ever heard. We're not a bunch of superstars jamming."
A fixture on the Los Angeles club scene since 1979, Los Illegals most recently recorded a collaboration with fellow L.A. rockers Concrete Blonde, Concrete Blonde Y Los Illegals (1997).
Douglas said he tried to get all the performers in the project to do something like what Los Illegals did -- filter Hendrix's art through their own identities.
Public Enemy's Chuck D turns Hendrix's "Free at the Edge of an Answer" (RealAudio excerpt) into a hip-hop rallying cry. In the documentary, he explains: "I'm talking about the freedom to express yourself in the realm of rap music."
Chuck D, 38, said he first heard Hendrix when someone played a tape of "Foxy Lady" while Public Enemy was on tour with the Beastie Boys in 1987. "[I thought] I'm gonna snatch that sh-- and rap on it one day," Chuck D recalls, adding that he admires Hendrix because he "started all that guitar sh-- ... multitracks ... outer-space sh--."
"There's something about Jimi that cut through everything," Los Lobos drummer Louie Perez says in the video. The 46-year-old Perez, whose band offers a version of the title cut from Are You Experienced?, added that when he saw Hendrix at the Hollywood Bowl, "I didn't know what was happening to me."
Hendrix had a wide spectrum of admirers. Trumpeter Mark Isham, a television and film composer who has played on albums by Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen and others, said he was drawn to the project because his idol, the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, was a Hendrix fan.
"I was aware of him being a cut above the rest [of rockers]," Isham, who covers "Stone Free," said. "[But I was] sort of a jazz snob."