André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in All Is by My Side

Jimi: All Is by My Side

 

Here’s a problem for anyone about to make a film about Jimi Hendrix, genius guitarist, 1960s icon, member of the 27 Club of rock’s premature expirers – how do you get inside a character who was private, taciturn, shy and elliptically cool? With a voiceover? A confidant? Newsreel footage? It’s a question that writer/director John Ridley answers with a shrug in this inert biopic which fails to locate Hendrix in his time.

There’s another problem too. Hendrix died a long time ago now. Hell, even Kurt Cobain died a long time ago now, so Ridley needs to make a film that tells an audience who might know next to nothing about Hendrix why and how he was the world’s greatest guitarist.

I say “the world’s greatest guitarist” because I’m of an age to know almost all of his music note for note. Growing up, we even had records in our house made by Hendrix before he was famous, when he was a jobbing musician with Curtis Knight and the Squires (I think – it was a while ago).

And that’s where the film picks up Hendrix (André Benjamin of Outkast), in 1966, in a backing band playing tasty guitar licks of a fairly unambitious sort in a New York club. In the scant crowd was Linda Keith (played by Imogen Poots), a former girlfriend of Keith Richards with a rich daddy, an eye for talent and a fair bit of time on her hands. Ridley’s film then follows Hendrix for the next year, as Linda Keith introduces Hendrix to the world of rock she knew, connects him up with Chas Chandler (an outstanding Andrew Buckley), the Animals’ bassist who became Hendrix’s manger. And it leaves him just as Jimi is about to play the 1967 Monterey Festival, where Jimi (and his Ronsonol-doused guitar) caught fire.

This is your “Star Is Born” story, in other words, though here it’s Hendrix’s enormous luck in meeting Linda Keith rather than his enormous talent that gets him the shot at stardom.

If Ridley doesn’t get his man, he does get his music and the film’s standout moments all occur on stage. First when Keith sees Hendrix in New York, then when Hendrix almost forces himself on stage to jam with the Cream, and so frightens guitarist Eric Clapton (known at the time simply as God) with his prowess that Clapton dashes from the stage. And finally when his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience plays at the Saville Theatre, where the Beatles are in the audience, and cheekily opens with the first track off their new Sergeant Pepper album, released only a couple of days before.

Much has been made of the fact that no actual Hendrix music – ie songs written by Hendrix – was used in the film. But it doesn’t matter a bit. For a start Hendrix did plenty of covers – Hey Joe, All Along the Watchtower, Red House, Johnny B Goode among them – and the backroom team (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Kenny Aronoff) have enough talent and confidence not to make this a note-for-note recreation of the records. But never mind who or how or why, the music satisfies the ultimate arbiter – the hairs on the back of the neck.

As for the rest of it, it’s a competent and routine rock biopic – getting the band together, the girlfriend, backstage, frontstage, with Ridley occasionally remembering it was the 1960s and throwing in a couple of seconds of psychedelic montage.

Probably the third question you’d ask going into the film, if you knew it was Ridley in the driving seat, is how is the writer of 12 Years a Slave going to handle the race thing? In two eminently cuttable scenes he answers it – first as Hendrix is hectored and belittled by a trio of loutish coppers, who are ostensibly angry that he’s wearing a British military jacket in a disrespectful fashion. Second in a scene between Hendrix and Michael X, Britain’s embarrassing counterpart of the US’s Malcolm X, in which the revolutionary mini-me encourages Hendrix to be, in short, more black. Hendrix responds with something about the power of love beating the love of power, in that maddening drawl beloved of rockers to this day, but which marks Hendrix out as being in the vanguard of post-racial politics, and music.

As for the dolly birds, they really do get the rough end of the pineapple. Poots as the well heeled Linda Keith getting almost reverential treatment as the girl who made it all possible but was absolutely definitely and quite categorically not a groupie. Hayley Atwell plays a blinder as the girl who steals Hendrix off Linda Keith – a heart of gold, a body of honey, talons of dripping venom (see Coronation Street’s 1960s siren Elsie Tanner for where at least 75% of her remarkable performance comes from). As for the rest of the women, they gabble and caw at the edge of the frame like a ravening mob of low-rent courtesans. Adherents of the “class, race, gender” school of film criticism, sharpen your tools.

Which brings us to André Benjamin as Hendrix, who is as good as Jimi as Jamie Foxx was as Ray Charles in Ray, convincing entirely from the first second he appears that he’s the real thing. I certainly never doubted, never saw the performance, from the way Hendrix dipped his head while he talked, to the skinny-cool aura he gave off, Benjamin has it all down. But Benjamin can’t give us something that’s not in the writing and Ridley seems uninterested in filling out who this man is – and isn’t that the point of a biopic? This leads to the film’s potentially most upsetting moment – an outbreak of violence by Hendrix – leading to head scratching rather than shock.

The brilliant character actor Burn Gorman turns up for a couple of minutes, as Hendrix’s co-manager Michael Jeffery, one of those spivvy wheeler-dealers who actually made the 1960s happen, and the screen crackles into life with mendacity, greed and lust. And suddenly there’s a hint of the film that this might have been, a glimpse of a moment when talented young people were ushered into stardom by managerial geniuses who generally stole their money and didn’t give a stuff about the counter culture. Instead we have a disappointing almost-biography which goes only album-cover deep in its explanation of what the 1960s were about and how its brightest star, Jimi Hendrix, fitted into it all.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 Jimi: All Is by My Side – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

4 thoughts on “Jimi: All Is by My Side”

  1. The theatregoer hoping to get some insight into Jimi Hendrix and London in 1966/67 will leave the theatre disappointed. Before seeing the film I was apprehensive, as I had been told that my character was portrayed in a derogatory and potentially defamatory manner. I had been told that Jimi had beaten me with a telephone in the film and after I had protested that this was not true the film makers had replied that it was true because they had "thoroughly researched" me. In other words they were saying that they were telling the truth and I was not. During the opening scenes I found it difficult to comprehend the way the story was unfolding, or what it was depicting. The editing was disjointed and dialogue was layered on top of alternate dialogue, seemingly from a parallel conversation. The film progressed in a confusing and dull manner but there was one scene that gave me a momentary lift of anticipation. The scene depicts Jimi playing with Cream at the Polytechnic Students' Union and should have set out to depict an absolutely epic event that I had witnessed. (I had been carrying Jimi's guitar). I hoped that they would do Jimi justice in their interpretation of what happened. Unfortunately, once the music started, my heart sank. What a disappointment. Not only was it insulting to Jimi's legacy, but I would say it was fairly insulting to Eric Clapton as well because the real Eric Clapton would never have been in awe of the unremarkable performance presented to viewers in this film. The storyline progressed in an awkward and illogical way and was hard to comprehend. The basis seemed to be that the dimwitted "Jimi" could not make up his mind between the good rock chick (Linda Keith) and the bad rock chick (Kathy Etchingham) who later goes bonkers and takes an overdose. (If I was the actress having to play this lousy part wearing those ugly clothes I may have taken an overdose too.) Fictional characters were introduced that furthered the deluded political, racial and sexist agenda that John Ridley seemed to be pursuing. In particular Michael X was presented as a saintly black political guru whereas in truth he was a violent criminal con man who was executed for a gruesome murder. An "Ida" character is introduced who never existed in real life. The biggest disappointment of this film was that after expecting at least some kind of depiction of Jimi's humour and creativity and the amusing and creative times that were happening in London, instead we were shown a gloomy and depressing dark tale that pictured Jimi as some sort of moronic loser. Instead of showing Jimi touring the UK and Europe, writing and performing the most innovative music of the century we are shown scenes of banal mumblings, fictitious gratuitous violence and fictitious mental breakdowns and overdoses. My initial anxiety turned to scorn for the thoroughly bad screenplay and direction. I became bored and impatient for the end of the film. The fictional nature of the film left me feeling that the events I was watching were more akin to a made for DVD movie than a biopic. I felt that I wasn't watching an interpretation of the real events from the time, but rather a stiff and poorly depicted mashup of trivia from events described in my book, sprinkled over Ridley's racially driven fictional theme. Even the imaginary domestic violence and drug use that my character was involved in did not evoke the emotional response I expected, and I found myself feeling just as I have when watching other bad movies, impatient for it to just finish and spare me the indignity of having to watch another tiresome scene with wooden dialogue and disjointed editing. A short-sighted and somewhat offensive portrayal of Jimi and those around him at the time.

    Final verdict: Fictional Movie – 2/10 Biopic purporting to be based in fact – 1/10 (for spelling all the names right)

  2. The dude who said this film is racist doesn't understand Jimmi Hendrix's life. He was a complete unknown drifting from venue to venue under a lot of different monikers only to be discovered by the girlfriend of Keith Richards. That was the era he lived in– as a black musician in that era coupled with his ridiculous dress, he would have never been given a chance otherwise. If you look into his Harlem show, even black people didn't "get" him. If you're a real Hendrix fan, or have read some of his biographies this film aims to stick true to the actual story of his life–not a politically correct version modified for the 21st century.

    And borderline autistic? That's how Hendrix spoke. He was incredibly shy and soft spoken unless he had his guitar in his hand. Watch just about any interview on live television where he was talking one on one with the host–it's awkward and clumsy to the point where you think there's something wrong with him. Add on an intense amount of personal substance abuse and you'll be able to understand why Andre 3000's portrayal of Jimi was spot on.

    I'd say if you walk into this film with a little bit of historical understanding of Hendrix's life as well as an awareness about the social pressures shaping the man you'll find this film to be a pretty accurate representation on the guitar god.

  3. When dealing with such an iconic figure such as Jimi Hendrix, sometimes the hardest thing about capturing the essence of a character, the perspectives of a legend, and the workings of a man are the most difficult points to show on screen. Jimi Hendrix is a name that pretty well everyone knows, and a name that many will continue to remember for many years to come. So how does one humanize, arguably, the greatest guitar player who ever lived?

    The film itself is an exercise in the practice of subtly and minute brilliance. All Is By My Side is a rustic and antique look at the life of a man; Johnny Allen Hendrix, a man who served the US army and was honourably discharged; Jimmy James, the backing guitarist for the Isley Brother's, Little Richard and Curtis Knight; finally Jimi Hendrix–the experience.

    Undoubtedly, first time director, veteran screenwriter and passionate Hendrix fan John Ridley had a difficult time with the production. Relying mostly on passion, Ridley focused on the small instances of Hendrix's career, and navigates through the film with nuanced characters and fragmented events in Hendrix's career.

    Its admirable how Ridley, through a slew of obstacles, was still able to delve deep into the world of Hendrix through extensive research. Unable to attain the musical rights from the Hendrix estate, Ridley opted for covers of Hendrix songs and songs Hendrix covered to fill the somewhat hushed void of a musical autobiography. I won't lie in saying that I was quite surprised to see an autobiographical film of one of the loudest and most electric guitarist to be so quiet. The soundtrack is definitely something I will not be rushing to get.

    Although Ridley was unable to fill the musical gap of the film, he made up for it visually and in his actors performances. Andrea Benjamin's take on Hendrix will surely be the overlooked performance of the year. Nailing Hendrix's mannerism, voice, passion (or lack there-of) and his nonchalant attitude, Benjamin is spot-on. Not far behind is Imogen Poots and her portrayal of Linda Keith, the woman who was responsible for introducing the world to Hendrix. Poots is an absolute acting force to be reckoned with. Linda's subdue scenes with Hendrix, although somewhat tame and uneventful, give the audience the most auspicious look into the inner workings of the Hendrix psyche.

    All Is By My Side will surely be an overlooked film by critics and audiences alike. Substituting thunderous Hendrix stage antics with gorgeous shots of the London landscape, the smokey underground music scene at the time and blurry world of rock and roll, cinematographer Tim Fleming creates an intimate portrayal of a man who was mysterious and misunderstood to others, but to himself as well.

    All Is By My Side is a beautiful, quiet and stylistically generous offering to the hardcore Hendrix fan.

    Night Film Reviews: 7/10 Stars

  4. The movie was OK. Nor a masterpiece by any means, but a solid entry that shows part of the Hendrix life. I'm not good in writing reviews, in fact I believe that they are pointless, and everyone should base their opinion by seeing a movie. Nevertheless I had to make an entry because of that ignorant 'garbage' and 'racist' review. Do not get me wrong, you are entitled to think about any movie as garbage, and I'm fine with that. But when someone shows his/hers ignorance and calls historic facts racist… That's just sad. Shall we rewrite history? Please read Hendrix biography. If it wasn't for that lady, that was sleeping with Richards, Hendrix would not made a contact with a manager, that helped him develop his career. Sames go with so many (white if that matters – for me not, and if that matters for you, you are the racist… I'd like to remind, that it works both ways..) other people that helped him along the way, e.g. if it was not for McCartney he would _never_ play at the Monterrey Festival… That festival made him well known in the USA, because earlier his hit from Britain did not even enter top 100 in the USA… Similarly with the violence – quite well documented. The guy just couldn't handle alcohol, and changed after it, as so many people do. To sum up – Hendrix would always be a Hendrix (even changing name to Jimi was suggested by a white guy, oops). Great talent, great naivety, and bad life decisions. The point I'm making is, that at that time, without the help of white people, he would not become so famous. Sometimes skills are just not enough, you have to have luck, and met the right people. Do not try to rewrite history… You know also what? These people were so much better than the mindless PC obsessed masses. They didn't care about the skin color, just the talent, the music, the person. Who he was. An that was the late 60s I want to remind you. Not an easy time for people of color (less in Europe, but still). So, people, please watch the movie, read Hendrix biography (or if you are lazy, his Wikipedia page), and stop with this racists BS.

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