Crosstown Traffic

John Ridley and André Benjamin on 'Jimi: All Is by My Side’

During the hectic second weekend of ACL Fest, the planets aligned and nudged the conversation from music to movies for a couple of hours down at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, a stone’s throw from Auditorium Shores.

John Ridley and André Benjamin (Photo by Gary Miller)

Jimi: All Is by My Side, the new Jimi Hendrix film, screened on Saturday, Oct. 12, and was followed by a conversation afterward with writer/director John Ridley and the film’s leading man André Benjamin, aka André 3000 of Outkast. Ridley has been in Austin since the spring, working on his forthcoming TV series American Crime and appearing at the film’s U.S. debut at SXSW Film last March. Outkast had blasted the Austin skyline the night (and the weekend) before at ACL. Taking advantage of the local presence of the two men and Jimi’s national release a couple weeks before (click to read The Austin Chronicle’s four-star review), a screening and panel was hastily put-together by the the Texas Chapter of the Recording Academy (the Grammy people) and the Austin Film Society; the conversation was moderated by man-about-Austin-media Andy Langer.

Andy Langer, John Ridley, and André Benjamin (Photo by Gary Miller)

The film is a far cry from the standard-issue music biopic. Instead of recounting the musician’s entire life story, Jimi: All Sides Now looks at a single year in the life of Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970 at the tender age of 27. It was the period of 1966-67, prior to Hendrix’s instant launch to fame after playing his legendary gig at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where he astonished the audience with his technique and outdid Pete Townsend’s guitar-smashing during the Who’s set by setting his own axe on fire. This was a time before Hendrix became Hendrix, when he was a relative unknown plucked from the obscurity of playing behind others, and was swept off to London and given the time and resources to develop his unique identity and hone his craft.

Jimi is an impressionistic study in which the focus is on the nascent Hendrix and his mixture of professional cockiness and pure naivete. Yet Ridley (the recent Oscar recipient for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay) also fills this movie with a rich sense of the swinging London scene at the time, as well as one of the most rounded portraits of the women who hang out with musicians ever put onscreen. For the most part in Ridley’s story, they are more than ships-in-the-night groupies, and instead thoughtful, opinionated career-guiders whose contributions are as valued as those of any man.

Another reason for setting the film in Hendrix’s pre-fame period was the notorious lack of access the filmmakers had to the use of any of Hendrix’s published music. It was a problem that bedeviled and overcame many a filmmaker who had tried to make aHendrix biopic over the years. Hendrix’s family, the owners of the intellectual copyrights, had blocked many unauthorized attempts to use the musician’s songs in previously planned biographies, and this one was no different. But by focusing on Hendrix during the months leading up to the first Jimi Hendrix Experience recording, the film is able to bring to light aspects of his early career that are less widely known, such as the show where the just-arrived-in-London Hendrix jammed with Cream and blew Eric Clapton off the stage, and the performance where the Experience opened their show (with members of the Beatles in attendance) with a rendition of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which had only been released a couple of days earlier.

After introductions, Andy Langer quoted the line from the movie: “Easy is always boring.” Noting that the decision to focus the film on one single year was a game-changer, Langer asked how that came about.

John Ridley: I was up late one night, listening to some Hendrix rarities on the Internet. His music is so powerful and so emotive and reaches so deeply. And there was this one song in particular that as I was listening to and it made me feel things that I had not felt before listening to anyone’s music. I looked up at the title that was on the screen. It was called “Sending My Love to Linda.” I thought I was a Hendrix aficionado, I thought I was a fan, and I go, “Who’s Linda?” And I started looking into that story … and there were all these bits and pieces. In some places they would talk about her and in other places not at all. Going from New York to London and meeting Chaz and the relationship with Kathy, and all these things that started to be very fundamental to who he was and his music and the formation the Hendrix Experience that a lot of people didn’t really know. For me, it was the way a lot of people look at Che Gueverra. You know, their kids walk around with Che T-shirts on, and he looks cool and he has this iconography but they don’t know about the man, his politics, who he was, whether he was good or bad. And I just thought that within this story, here’s a story that had its own emotional velocity, had its own drive. Maybe that’s a way to let this tell a story, tell itself, and try to impose things on people or just do a greatest-hits version of Hendrix.

Langer asked André Benjamin why he said yes to this offer to play Hendrix after passing on other opportunities.

André Benjamin: When I was younger I got approached by a couple of directors who wanted to make it happen. I was just a giddy young rap kid, and I was yeah, it’ll be cool if I play Hendrix. If they want me to do it, yeah I’ll do it. I think it had to wait until now. For whatever reason those projects did not get made.

Really, this was all about how John came to me. He came to me with this script, he came with the drive. I just knew it, I could just tell from the first time I met him that he was gonna make this movie. That’s exactly what he said. He said “I’m gonna make this movie, and I want you to play it.” Of course, I felt like was older at the time, I’m 39 now; I was 37 then. And of course Hendrix was 27 when he passed away. So, unfortunately and fortunately, in those times they lived hard and they looked older than what they were, so it worked. I looked it. … I don’t want to take anything away from John though. It was truly John’s direction that got everything on the screen. I was just a person that was willing to put in the work to do what I had to do, not considering myself a true actor or anything like that.

André Benjamin (Photo by Gary Miller)

John Ridley: When André talks about acting and putting it in quotes, I really want to make clear the work that he did. When I met André, I think it was around 2011, I sat down and I said that I want to make this movie. We had no money, had no backing, had nothing. And André was gracious enough to sit down. He lives in Atlanta, I live in Los Angeles. In January of 2012, we’re finally getting close to a point where we could make this movie, André moved from Atlanta, where he lives, to Los Angeles, and stayed there there through June. In that space he started working with a guitar coach – he played guitar a little bit, but certainly not left-handed or strung upside down and backwards – he started working with a vocal coach, André in my opinion is in great physical shape, but Jimi at that time period was just real thin. He had no money, didn’t eat, and was performing every night, he was essentially emaciated. André started going a a diet.

We started talking about the script, we started talking about film, film in general. Getting a common language of cinema. Started doing the guitar lessons, started getting to know each other. That was 4, 5, 6, 7 months before we moved out to Dublin where we were shooting [and another month of rehearsals with the two lead actresses]. … There are actors out there who could have given a great performance; there are actors out there who yet may give another terrific Hendrix performance; there is nobody in my opinion, and it is one that cannot be objective, but there’s nobody who can do what André did. Two and a half years ago I wasn’t who people think I am now. So to step up to somebody and say, “I’m going to do a Hendrix movie; I don’t have rights to some of the music; I haven’t directed a film in 7 years; my last credit was Undercover Brother (more people applaud when I say that than other things), you’ve got to understand there are a lot of times you come to people and you know you look like your hair’s on fire. And there are a few people around this film who said, “That’s all good. When do we start?”

People have been attempting to work in this space for quite some time, and there are people whose résumés are deeper and more substantial, quite frankly, than mine will ever be. People like Paul Greengrass and people like the Hughes brothers. And if artists like that couldn’t solve the divide between what they wanted to do creatively and what the owners of the intellectual property might want to do, very sincerely there was no reason to believe that somehow that I could do something they couldn’t. Very early on I was aware that there would be issues in that regard if all we wanted to do was merely chase songs that people had heard before. … To me, if all you have are the artifacts, then that’s all you’ve got. If you don’t put those things into some kind of context – because to me this film was also as much about London in that era and that cross-pollinization and why someone like Jimi could be successful in London. At 24 years old, he had played for Ike & Tina, the Isley Brothers, had played for Little Richard, and he was kind of washed up because he did not have an environment that allowed for his creativity. So to me I wanted to talk about London, I wanted to talk about the other influences, I wanted to talk about Beck and Clapton and Townsend, and we show some visuals. It really is about using all of those aspects rather than if we don’t have this one song, as brilliant as that song is, as much as people know that song, we have nothing. That’s why iTunes is out there.

André Benjamin: I think it helped that we didn’t have it, in my opinion, but I think it forced us to make a different type of movie because we couldn’t just lean on them songs. So we had to say, “How do we make it?” And of course that changes your choices in how you play a person, as a writer you have to change things up. I mean it would have been great to have these songs or support from the family. I think we set out to do a certain movie and I’m happy I was a part of it. I think it made the movie so much different. Just me as a fan, I’ve seen a lot of biopics and I think we’ve gotten to that place where we kind of know the paint-by-biopic numbers.

Andre Benjamin in Jimi: All Is by My Side

John Ridley: For me, one of the big things, too, is about those relationships. One of the things I really wanted to avoid is just bringing the people who were around him, particularly the ladies in his life when they’re just groupies. Oftentimes, in these kinds of films, the girls are just there to be girls because that’s what they do when they’re around rock stars. There’s one line in this film that I love – that they things that you love, they stay with you, whether you want them to or not. And I thought that was amazingly powerful that as we go through our days, there are people around us who touch and and influence us and sometimes we don’t even have the capacity to look them in the eye and say, “The things that you are doing around me, the things that you make me feel, have moved me, have shaped me, have driven me forward.

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Jimi: All Is by My Side, John Ridley, André Benjamin, Jimi Hendrix, Austin Film Society, The Recording Academy, Texas Chapter

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