“I remember the day Jimi was leaving Maui. He looked at us with tears in his eyes and said, ‘You guys are so lucky. You get to stay,’” reminisces Mauian Les Potts, who spent three July weeks with Hendrix filming Rainbow Bridge, and was involved with the film’s production from its genesis. Shooting culminated with what was dubbed the “Rainbow Bridge Vibratory Color/Sound Experiment,” a storied concert on Baldwin family ranch land in Olinda, on July 30, 1970. Hendrix immediately went on to play at the Waikiki Shell on August 1. It was his last concert on U.S. soil. He died less than two months later.
Hendrix’s final days were dark ones. He was having problems with his manager, Michael Jeffery, and, according to biographer Harry Shapiro, “was becoming increasingly distrustful of those around him.” At the same time, Hendrix was changing his sound—with mixed results. “Both his management and his audiences seemed determined that Hendrix should be content with simply repeating his former triumphs,” writes another biographer, Charles Shaar Murray. “Much to Hendrix’s disgust and despair [his] fresh material seemed to be merely tolerated.”
This “fresh material,” while beloved by enthusiasts today, embodied a bold new direction for Hendrix—jazzier, rolling compositions inspired by his camaraderie with Miles Davis as well as his repeat visits to the Hawaiian islands from 1968-’70 (Potts, among others, points to the tune “Pali Gap”). “He planned to release a double album with the working title of First Rays of the New Rising Sun, at the end of ,” writes Murray. But with that project left unfinished, “two posthumous albums released in 1971, Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge… both betray their makeshift origins.”
The latter-named release is better known for the movie of the same name, principally filmed on Maui during the summer of 1970. Murray writes that Rainbow Bridge was a project “close to [Jeffery’s] heart—an incoherent farrago of dope and mysticism.” (It might be more accurate to say it was close to Jeffery’s pocketbook—Potts says Jeffery personally sunk over $500,000 into it, plus $300,000 to Warner Bros. and $40,000 to the IRS—funds that weren’t recouped until the movie was sold in ’72 to Transvue Pictures Corp.) But the film is closer still to Mauians, especially those who were in it.
Sure, the flick’s incongruous plotline (if one even exists) coupled with misleading marketing (bootlegs and re-releases often try to pass it off as a straight concert film) make it a tough sell to even diehard Hendrix fans. But it remains worthy as a cinematic hippie relic; a portrait of a sect of youth—specifically youth on Maui—from that era, and includes a unique snapshot of one of music’s most revolutionary icons in what would be his final weeks.
Never mind the oft hard-to-follow ramblings of rawboned hippie waifs at “The Rainbow Bridge Occult Research Meditation Center” (i.e. Seabury Hall, rented out during the school’s summer vacation, Potts says, for a meager $3,000 for three months), where lead actress Pat Hartley is sent to investigate the experimental outpost of a man she meets in the Mojave Desert. Even the concert footage in Rainbow Bridge is frequently dismissed by Hendrix historians as not particularly memorable.
But sit down and screen the film with someone who was there—as we did with Potts recently, in his Napili home—and not only are the movie’s charms made more evident, but the texture of noteworthy brushstrokes from this portrait of our island’s history come clear.
“Forty years is a long time, and I bet if you talk to any of the other survivors, you’ll get a different story,” says Potts, who adds that most cast members have since passed. “But this is what I remember. At the time, we were just dumb, haole hippies, and back then, we weren’t really socially accepted at all. Our county government was gearing toward the fact that they wanted [Maui] to be a tourist place for rich people.” Pamphlets essentially saying “we don’t want you here, go back where you came from” were handed out to anyone at the airport with “a backpack and long hair,” says Potts.
A May 27, 1970 Maui News editorial titled “Forecast for a Troubled Summer” reflects a similar sentiment. “Young people here on Maui as throughout the state and across the nation will find summer employment hard to come by… [as] recruiters and businesses… have learned to pick and choose while being most selective,” reads the piece. “There might be a measure of satisfaction to be gained from this if the only ones to be hurt and frustrated were the radicals who have spent four years damning the establishment. There might even be some therapeutic value in discovering the world does not revolve around the desires of the young, and that it can be a tough old world to get along in.”
Potts says he first met Jeffery at Lahaina’s Pioneer Inn, while having breakfast one morning. Potts and a friend were petitioning a potential investor for $10,000 in startup cash to open a surf shop, but things “weren’t really going anywhere.” It was a time when bogus rumors often flew about acts like Led Zeppelin coming to the isle. But when a man who’d earlier introduced himself, to Pott’s disbelief, as Hendrix’s manager interrupted, saying, “Ten grand? I’ll give you ten grand!” the direction of the conversation quickly turned to Jeffery.
Jeffery returned to Lahaina “six to eight months later with Michael Hynson” (who remains a close personal friend of Potts’s), and it was then that Potts learned of—and became involved with—plans to make a movie.
Cast member Melinda Merryweather, in a 1995 interview with Straight Ahead Magazine, says she approached Jeffery on Maui and told him about a guy named Chuck Wein, a protégé of Andy Warhol, who had an idea for a film.
Wein’s vision, Potts says, was forward-looking, a precursor of what we now call reality TV. The concept was to take real-life personalities and subtly script mostly impromptu interactions. “He just took different people that were heavy into their trips, put them together and let the cameras roll,” says Potts of the “very, very loose script.”
A California native, Potts was behind the scenes during filming in So. Cal. in the Spring of 1970 (though he needed to keep off-screen as he was to be in Hawaii shots), and points out the many locations seen early in the film. During the opening sequence, when a group of young people approach actress Hartley with rapid-fire testimony, Potts says, “those are real Jesus freaks.” Later, during a scene where Hartley is hassled by two police officers, Potts quips, “those are real cops—and, frankly, some of the better actors in the movie.” And, in a scene where Hartley imagines marching off to war with a band of young men lead by a barking drill sergeant, “those poor suckers” were really off to Vietnam.
Potts cringes during the movie’s long, opening monologue—a canned voiceover set to a black screen. “This is a little thick, this guy’s rap.”
“Thick” though it may be, it sets up movie’s intended themes—themes that aren’t necessarily upheld in any organized manner.
“Chuck Wein wanted to produce a program to relieve mass paranoia against the arrival of extraterrestrials,” says Potts. “[He] was talking about UFOs because he believed that evil power monopolies ran the planet, along with the military industrial complex, and UFOs were powered by electromagnetic energy. If this were to come out, it’d be a bigger revolution than the Industrial Revolution, because electromagnetic energy would replace oil electricity. We went into a lot of detail about that, but most of it was not in the film.”
The opening monologue, meanwhile, croaks, “Have you heard of the Mystical Population? Have you ever met anyone from this enigmatic section of the land? Do you know their mission? Their destiny? Do you know that the space people have already established regular routes to the U.S. and the makers of this film—who are energized with them—are already in contact with them at will?”
Shapiro’s Hendrix biography expands on this: “Wein claims that a group of people meditated for several months and traveled astrally to visit those with sufficient funds to finance the venture. The record books fail to show whether Mo Ostin of [Warner Bros.] received an occult visitation, but he did get a call from Mike Jeffery.”
“At the time, we were having a lot of UFO activity [on Maui] because they were doing Star Wars testing up at the crater,” says Potts.
Even a May 9, 1970 Maui News piece titled “Ghost Lights Over Maui,” by Jeanne Booth Johnson describes a “funny kind of meteor [that] was reported by a whole lot of folks in Honolulu, including government officials, Air Force and FAA personnel. A spokesman for the latter said ‘the object was not like any object missile or satellite’ he’d ever seen… All our islands have mysterious lights seen in odd places… in the sky or on the ground.”
“Of course, this is all theoretical,” admits Potts, “[but] this is what we were talking about at the time. I’m not talking about little green men, I’m thinking more like the book Chariot of the Gods,” he adds, referring to the 1968 book by Erich von Daniken.
Potts has a few key scenes in the movie, including an infamous one where he and others cut open a surfboard to reveal a large bag of smuggled psychoactives—which in reality, Potts says, was chocolate cake mix. Another takes place at Lahaina’s Banyan tree. There, Potts really interviews two young Mauians about a UFO sighting they’d had, where a vessel came out from the valley above Lahainaluna.
Potts says that, in all, they filmed 43 hours of 35mm tape, “ridiculous” by today’s standards and part of the reason they racked-up “$300,000 in lab fees with Warner Bros.” Some of the footage consisted of “a giant cigar with a blue ball around it, right above Lahaina Harbor.” When the footage returned from Warner, he says it was wiped clean, but audio interviews of “people freaking out on Front Street” remained, though those too were lost 20 years ago to TV news reporter John Yoshimura, when Potts provided his insight for a 20-year anniversary Rainbow Bridge story for KHON2. “John, if you’re out there,” Potts says, “I want that tape back.”
None of the UFO themes—which are clearly what resonate with Potts four decades later—are evident until the very end of the film (and even then, they require explanation).
After the famed “Rainbow Ridge” Olinda concert with the Jimi Hendrix Experience (featuring Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and, replacing Noel Redding on bass, Billy Cox), the final scenes of Rainbow Bridge are of primary cast members (Potts included) romping barefooted through the Haleakala crater to the Holua cabin, where they sit enraptured by Charlotte Blobe, who was “the closest thing we had to an actual UFO contact,” according to Potts. Blobe was the personal secretary to George Adamski, famous for his claims of meeting with Nordic “Space Brothers” (a term also used in Rainbow Bridge). Then, credits roll over shots of a highly-active Kilauea.
Need a recap? Us too. A chick from the Mainland shows up on Maui and yaks with a bunch of haole hippies (save one Honolulu girl billed as “Hawaiian Susanne” in the credits) who have an array of competing “trips,” and duke it out with feverish pitch in an “Occult Research Meditation Center” otherwise known as Seabury Hall in the summertime. One of the greatest guitarists of all time shows up, speaks but briefly, and plays a concert Upcountry for a few folks who subsequently run up to the top of the mountain and talk to an alien lady. Then there’s an eruption.
So what about Hendrix? Isn’t he the point? Are criticisms of Rainbow Bridge as a misrepresented concert DVD, or Hendrix-centric movie, true? Yes and no. Hendrix’s music is indeed the movie’s audible cornerstone and his concert its visual climax, but Hendrix himself is little to be found other than in a rather voyeuristic interview conducted in Seabury’s rafters and in perhaps the film’s most fascinating scene, where a grinning Jimi assassinates the Barron Bingen from a window at the school’s Cooper House, as he gives a speech next to a green American flag.
Potts shares some insider knowledge about that intriguing and (as with everything else) incongruous scene—the only violence in the movie. “That was all Jimi’s idea,” Potts says, as he shows me a framed photo from an old California newspaper, of him standing next to Hendrix. “We were standing there [outside of the Cooper House] and Barron was giving his speech. Then, he just runs up there, grabs that gun—which he must have seen up there at some point—and just did that.” Potts says Hendrix told him, over the course of their time spent on Maui and “having breakfast every morning for three weeks,” that he was under a lot of pressure from the Black Panthers to step to the forefront of the civil rights movement. That, Potts guesses, was likely the root of his motivation for the scene.
It was a rare moment of spotlight-hogging for the famed guitarist; Potts says Hendrix was incredibly shy throughout the shoot. In fact, every time they’d commence shooting, Jimi would “freak out.” Finally, before the attic “interview”—which reveals an obviously drunk but very clever and cool-tongued Hendrix—Jimi, then still refusing to do the scene, talked with Potts, who’d escaped to the furthest reaches of the campus and was listening to recordings from Hendrix’s famous Fillmore East concert from New Years’ Eve 1969. Potts says Jimi questioned why he would listen to that, saying it was “imperfect,” and so Potts replied, “Well, it may be imperfect to you, but it’s genius to me.” They downed a few Miller High Lifes, and Hendrix was sufficiently calmed—and inebriated—to do what fans consider the most important and insightful part of the film.
It may be in Potts’s words to Hendrix that we find the best summation of why Rainbow Bridge—chaotic plotting, crazy hippies and UFOs aside—matters. Because when all is said and done, in art as in life, nothing is faultless and everything is brilliant.