Directed by: John Ridley.
Written by: John Ridley.
Starring:: André Benjamin (Jimi Hendrix), Hayley Atwell (Kathy Etchingham), Imogen Poots (Linda Keith), Ruth Negga (Ida), Andrew Buckley (Chas Chandler), Oliver Bennett (Noel Redding), Adrian Lester (Mitch X).
One of the problems in making musical biopics is getting the rights to the music. If the subject is still alive, they may well want to protect their reputation, and not give the rights to their music up unless the filmmakers play by their rules – and even if the subject is dead, the estate may want to do the same. The people who run the estate of Jimi Hendrix have been very protective of his music – some have argued too protective, which is probably why we haven’t seen much in the way of big screen treatments of one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. Not surprisingly, they didn’t grant writer-director John Ridley the rights to Hendrix’s music for Jimi: All is By My Side, which would seem like a death knell to the movie. But while I cannot argue that not having the music helps the movie – I don’t think it hurt it as much as it could have. Ridley has made a film about the period of time right before Hendrix went to the Monterey Pop Festival and became a legend, a time when he is still finding his sound. And perhaps even more interestingly, the film concentrates almost as much on the women in Hendrix’s life as it does on Hendrix himself. Yes, it would have been great if the big musical moment in the film – which comes at the end – was not Hendrix playing Sergeant Pepper for a cheering audience, including the Beatles, but one of his own songs. But that doesn’t kill the movie.
Hendrix would seem to be an almost impossible person to portray – but Ridley smartly casts Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000), a musician who counts Hendrix as one of his major influences. Yes, Benjamin is too old to play Hendrix (he’s 40, and Hendrix died when he was 27) – but that doesn’t matter very much. Benjamin plays Hendrix as a mostly peaceful, blissed out, high, womanizing music obsessed genius. There are moments where the world outside of Hendrix and his music encroach on the film – most notably when he meets a man named Mitch X (Adrian Lester), an outspoken black activist, who thinks Hendrix should use his music as a form of protest. Hendrix isn’t much interested in that – and gives an answer you would expect a perpetually stoned musician to give – about the power of love, and the love of power, and flipping the switch, man. And then things will change, you know. Hendrix didn’t much relate to other black artists at the time – he refers to the “cats” in Harlem, where he doesn’t play, as being too strict. He doesn’t dig labels you see – he wants to make music that mixes the blues, r&b, rock and everything else – and the whole scene in America is too strict. Most of the movie takes place in London – where things are looser, and freer. You can see his genius on stage – but off stage, he doesn’t seem too interested in much of anything other than the music – and getting back on stage. He’s mainly easygoing, and likable. But there is darkness in him as well – that pokes out only subtly throughout the film (the way he tells whatever woman he is with at the time to stay home, you wouldn’t like it there, there’s nothing there for you, etc.). There is one scene where that darkness turns to violence – when he beats his current girlfriend with a phone in a nightclub. The scene is ill advised for a few reasons – one, based no one seems to think that it actually happened (including the woman herself who is adamant, and everyone who has researched Hendrix’s life cannot find anything to support any violence against women charges). But other movies have made changes to history that don’t bother me much (most recently, Selma and American Sniper) – the real problem here is comes out of left field. Yes, there was a little darkness in Hendrix throughout the movie – but nothing either before or after that hints that he has that level of violence in him. The scene throws the movie for a loop that it barely recovers from with its big musical moment.
But perhaps the most interesting thing Ridley does in the film is concentrate so much time on the women in Hendrix’s life. Perhaps sensing that a blissed out Hendrix would get monotonous for two hours (he wouldn’t be wrong) – Ridley delves deeper into the characters of three of the women in Hendrix’s life. The first is Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) – best known at the time as Keith Richards’ girlfriend, who sees Jimi in a club and thinks he’s a genius. He doesn’t even have his own guitar at that point – so she gives him one of Richards’ – and encourages him to go out on his own. Their relationship is mostly platonic – but there is a deep love that exists between them. Poots is one of the most promising actresses working together – with just about the sexiest British accent imaginable, and an expert pout, she makes Linda into an interesting woman, trying to define herself as more than just “Keith Richards girlfriend” in a time when that was all a woman was supposed to be. An even bigger revelation (if not necessarily a better performance) – comes from Hayley Atwell as Kathy Etchingham – the red headed, lower class firecracker, who Hendrix gets fixated on, and perhaps falls in love with, even though at times he hates her as well (she is the one he hits with the phone). I would have liked to see a little bit more of Ruth Negga’s Ida – a woman who says she has fallen for “rock stars” before, and knows what they are like. She is the one who brings Mitch X along with her – but she laughs when Jimi basically blows him off. What is interesting is that the three women apart are interesting – but together there doesn’t seem to be the type of jealously or infighting you may expect.
Jimi: All is By My Side is not a great movie. In a way, it’s hamstrung a little by Hendrix’s mellowness – there isn’t much of an arch to the movie. But it succeeds as a hangout movie – a movie where you’re happy just to spend with these characters. Yes, I think the scene of violence should have been omitted. And yes, it would have helped to have Hendrix’s music in the film. But in a way, it didn’t need that music. This shows what led up to the moment he become a legend. And if you want to see that legend, just watch Monterey Pop (1968) – or the stand alone film Jimi Plays Monterey (1986). As great as Andre Benjamin is the film – he was never going to top those.