You will not hear “Red House” in “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” the
new musical drama about Jimi Hendrix. You will not hear “Fire,” or “Purple
Haze,” or “The Wind Cries Mary,” or even my favorite Hendrix song, “Manic
Depression.” And of the covers that the ideally cast Andre Benjamin performs as
the iconic guitarist, you won’t hear his famous, glorious version of “The
This is because writer-director John Ridley and his team
couldn’t secure the rights to any of that spectacular music from Hendrix’s
estate. This would seem like a massive obstacle in trying to make a film about
Jimi Hendrix. Instead, the filmmakers have turned it into an opportunity.
They’ve chosen to focus on the year before Hendrix became a
superstar–when he was still planting the seeds of his greatness and signature
sound. Similar to the way “The Motorcycle Diaries” approached a young Che
Guevara, “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” depicts a small but crucial sliver in the
life of a gargantuan cultural figure: the time he spent in London from 1966-67.
It’s a risky approach that’s bound to frustrate many folks, but it’s also quite
illuminating in its own way.
Besides, how clichéd is the traditional biopic at this point?
Actually, it’s a genre that has long since been clichéd, as evidenced by the
brilliantly dead-on “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” And that came out all the
way back in 2007. We didn’t need to see a montage of a drug-addled Hendrix
being mobbed by fans as his hits make their way up the charts.
Instead, Ridley–a novelist, playwright, commentator and
producer who’s probably best known for winning the Academy Award this year for
his “12 Years a Slave” screenplay–shows us a soft-spoken, cerebral and
sometimes insecure Hendrix. “My voice is terrible,” the soon-to-be legend
insists when an early mentor suggests that he also sing while dazzling
audiences with his formidable guitar talents.
What’s fascinating about “Jimi: All Is By My Side” is not
only its decision to show us this particular chapter in Hendrix’s life, but also
the way it teases out the shadings in a famous figure we only think we know so
well. Benjamin–a.k.a. Andre 3000 of OutKast–is certainly familiar with what
it takes to give an electrifying on-stage performance. Hendrix has been a
longtime hero of his, and a lanky Benjamin convincingly conveys a persona that
was as elusive as his stage presence was explosive.
But it’s the quieter, more philosophical and even
conflicting elements of Hendrix’s personality that are even more compelling.
You get the sense that if he hadn’t been discovered playing backup guitar at
New York’s Cheetah Club in 1966, Hendrix might have been content playing gigs
here and there and spending his free time wandering around Greenwich Village,
perusing secondhand clothing stores and reading paperback sci-fi novels.
“I want my music to go into the soul of a person,” Hendrix
says at one point. And indeed, Ridley has chosen a similarly ethereal approach
at times to his storytelling. Memories come in impressionistic wisps and from
various sources–old footage and photographs from the period, for example.
Conversations overlap at a party or a pub. The sound design all around is quite
clever; in one scene, we see Hendrix playing but we hear the actual noise of
his fingers on the strings rather than the song itself.
We can’t quite capture it all, Ridley seems to be saying,
just as a biopic couldn’t possibly capture the complete nature of a towering
cultural titan. Again, it might prove frustrating for filmgoers who’d prefer a
more traditional narrative (or, you know, actual Hendrix songs). Instead,
“Jimi: All Is By My Side” shines a light on a formative time in his all-too
short career, and on the women who nurtured, shaped and loved him.
The first is Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), best known at that
time, reductively, as Keith Richards’ girlfriend. Keith is the one who
discovers him playing backup and immediately recognizes that she’s in the
presence of greatness. Poots’ smart and sexy demeanor has significantly
improved marginal material like “Need for Speed” and “That Awkward Moment.”
Here, she’s the seductive voice of reason with a head for business–a posh, Mod
goddess and a pushy stage mother. (Costume designer Leonie Pendergast
beautifully recreates the bold, minimalist look of Swinging Sixties style.)
Keith connects Hendrix with the man who would become his manager, the Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley). She also
lines up the members of his own band, the Experience: bass player Noel Redding
(Oliver Bennett) and drummer Mitch Mitchell (Tom Dunlea), whose mop of curly
hair inspired Hendrix’s trademark Afro.
But Keith’s actual feelings fall into a gray area between
friendship, territoriality and love. And so things get tense when a second
woman comes along: Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), who would become Hendrix’s
longtime girlfriend and Yoko Ono figure. She was also Keith’s opposite: a
volatile, potty-mouthed, redheaded hairdresser. Atwell is a scream in a role
that’s totally different from any she’s ever played before, especially compared
to the buttoned-down Peggy Carter in the “Captain America” universe.
(The real-life Etchingham herself is not so thrilled with the film,
however, and has written that a scene in which Hendrix savagely beats her with
a telephone receiver at a pub never actually happened. The outburst does seem
to come out of nowhere and doesn’t exactly jibe with the easygoing nature we’d
seen up until then.)
Both women, however, feel protective over Hendrix. In a lot
of ways, “Jimi: All Is By My Side” is about these powerful female forces, with
Hendrix himself fading into the background, lounging in a comfortable chair and
rapping about groovy, cosmic concepts. But then a third woman comes along who
takes him in an entirely different direction: Ida (the serenely beautiful Ruth
Negga), a fellow American living in London as a black activist. A fictional
figure in this realm who’s based on other people, Ida insists that Hendrix
should use his gifts and charisma to speak to and for the black people.
That’s not his thing, man. And as he begins to hone his
sound and recognize his power, we see glimmers of him turning into the
prototypical dismissive and narcissistic rock god. But given Ridley’s overall
approach, these are only glimmers. Hendrix’s fiery and triumphant performance
at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival awaits. The prospect of it dangles
tantalizingly before us at the film’s conclusion. All we can do is cheer, and
hope, and wait for an encore that will never come.