Jimi: All Is by My Side
2014, R, 118 min. Directed by John Ridley. Starring André Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Ruth Negga, Andrew Buckley, Oliver Bennett.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 3, 2014
A word of warning: Do not come to this movie expecting to find a standard-issue Jimi Hendrix biopic, complete with the story of the Sixties’ music legend’s meteoric rise to guitar-hero status, dollops of his life doled out from his formative years to his tragic death at the age of 27, peppered with tasty soundbites from his back catalog and selected anecdotes from those who knew him best. Writer/director John Ridley (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave) does something else entirely, and it’s to everyone’s benefit. Jimi: All Is by My Side is an evocative, probing, enlightening, and impressionistic look at the lesser-known period of Hendrix’s life: the pivotal time from 1966-67 during which the musician discovered his style and voice.
Not unlike Hendrix, who turned his left-handed guitar-playing into one of his greatest technical assets, Ridley turns the biggest barrier to the making of this film into its chief engine for ingenuity. Barred by Hendrix’s estate from using any of his songs, Ridley locks into a compelling way to tell this story that has no need for music rights to the Hendrix classics. By placing the focus on the period from 1966-67, when Hendrix went from playing as a sideman still known as Jimmy James to becoming the star attraction known as Jimi Hendrix, Ridley’s film mostly takes place before Hendrix’s first LP, Are You Experienced, comes out. Jimi plays plenty in the film, and some of his guitar runs can sound like precursors of later chord progressions, but when it comes to complete melodies, the filmmakers use songs written by others, like “Wild Thing” or “Killing Floor,” which sends Eric Clapton scurrying from the stage when the unknown Hendrix jams with Cream.
The real miracle of the movie is the performance of André Benjamin (one half of Outkast) as Hendrix. Although older than the character he’s playing, Benjamin manages to capture Hendrix’s fey demeanor and confident swagger. The other electrifying aspect of the movie is its portrait of groupies as complex women – handmaidens to greatness and true music scouts. The film opens with Hendrix’s initial discovery by Linda Keith (Poots), a top London fashion model and the girlfriend of Keith Richards, while he’s playing backup at New York’s Cheetah club and Richards is occupied with the Rolling Stones’ 1966 American tour. It is she who instills in him a desire to strike out on his own, change his processed hair into an Afro, gives him his first LSD and a white guitar belonging to her boyfriend, and introduces him to Chas Chandler (Buckley), who becomes Hendrix’s manager (and is usually cited as the one who discovered Hendrix). Hendrix’s tendency to float from girlfriend to girlfriend is well-demonstrated, as is a less-than-flattering tendency toward physical abuse. Topping things off is Glenn Freemantle’s terrific sound design in which the whole bohemian scene is a sonic sensation in which snatches of music, conversations, and even silence vie in a pastiche that creates as good a sense of that moment in time – and Hendrix’s myriad influences – as any you’re likely to come across. You will depart from the film “experienced.”