Outkast member Andre Benjamin is eerily good as Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is by My Side; you really feel as if you’re watching the mysterious and introverted guitar legend on the screen. The same goes – albeit less successfully — for writer/director John Ridley’s sense of the place and era (the film is mostly set in London circa 1966/67) that Hendrix inhabited, which Ridley presents in a kaleidoscopic fashion that intermittently captures what it must have been like to hang out in those hazy, head-spinning and often electrifying days. In the end, however, Jimi: All Is by My Side feels incomplete and unable to give us a clearer picture of the man behind the music.
For one thing, we don’t get to hear the music. Ridley’s biopic was not approved or authorized by the Hendrix family, and as a result he was not allowed to use any of the artist’s recordings in the film. This is frankly an almost catastrophic blow, because we hear a lot of people talking about what a genius Hendrix is, but we never get to fully experience it ourselves. The movie feels like whole chunks of it have been edited out – namely the parts in which we see Hendrix perform songs like “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze,” all of which were Top 10 hits in the UK for Hendrix at the time the movie takes place.
That glaring absence does, on the other hand, allow Ridley (who wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave) the freedom to make his movie without the Hendrix family looking over his shoulder and possibly scrubbing clean anything they didn’t like. As a result we don’t always see the legend as this mystical musical wizard who came down from some mountain to bestow “Manic Depression” on us. We see him as young, naïve in some ways, insecure, afraid, arrogant and painfully lonely – all the qualities that make up a real human being. We also see him hit his longtime girlfriend Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell) not once but twice – something we’re not quite sure the Hendrix estate would have allowed to stay in the script for very long, but which also feels the most out of character (Etchingham also denies that Hendrix beat her).
I’ve seen it mentioned that the movie doesn’t play like the standard biopic, which is to say like a collection of “greatest hits” from its subject’s life, but it kind of does – only within a very short, focused amount of time and in far less shoehorned fashion. But we do see Jimi’s discovery by Linda Keith (the socialite girlfriend of Keith Richards at the time, portrayed here by Imogen Poots) at the Cheetah Club in New York; his first meeting with Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley, very good), the Animals bassist turned manager; his recruitment of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell to form the Experience; and his legendary performance with Cream at the London Polytechnic where he met Eric Clapton and changed the latter’s life.
All this alternates with more prosaic and occasionally darker moments, like a scene where Etchingham and Hendrix are confronted by some racist London cops (so little has changed in 50 years…). No, we don’t get to see the earthshaking Monterey Pop performance – the movie ends just as the band is heading off to the festival – nor do we see the inevitable downfall that is part of the standard biopic formula these days. What we do get is rich enough, but Ridley doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in it, smearing everything in overly busy editing, cutaways to news footage and a frenetic sound design that never lets us spend quite enough time with Jimi himself or fully soak in the impact of the events that we do get to witness.
As I said earlier, Benjamin is excellent – he pretty much disappears into the role – but we see so much of Hendrix the flawed human being that you start to wish after a while for a bit more of Hendrix the ascendant artist (we do get a bit of that in a climactic performance of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hears Club Band,” with subtitles helpfully pointing out the actual Beatles who were in attendance). The women in his life occasionally steal the movie from him, with Poots superb as the woman who was many things to Hendrix but never a lover, and Atwell equally complex as a voluptuously enthusiastic Swinging London hedonist who was perhaps in love with the idea of Hendrix but unable to come to terms with the man himself. Some of the other walk-ons, however, like Ashley Charles as a petulant Keith Richards and Burn Gorman as a slippery Michael Jeffery (the Animals manager who helped Chandler bankroll the Experience) seem simply gimmicky.
In straying away from the Hollywood-style biopic template – which is usually bursting with big dramatic moments and cued to one classic song after another – Ridley has gone almost too far in the other direction, giving us little slices of a crucial year or so in Hendrix’s life but doing so in such an indirect, intentionally arty way that the movie feels too small and obscure instead of too pompous and overblown. Credit to Ridley for trying something different in an increasingly stale genre, but perhaps the great Hendrix film, like the man himself, remains elusive.
Jimi: All Is by My Side is out in theaters this Friday (September 26).