This time last year the name John Ridley was synonymous with Oscar buzz. You couldn’t open the entertainment section of a newspaper or have a conversation about movies without someone mentioning 12 Years A Slave and it’s brilliant screenwriter. The film went on to win numerous awards, of course, including Ridley’s adapted screenplay. Wins like that generally give a person a certain amount of capital, and John Ridley has chosen to use his to make a biopic about the greatest guitarist of all-time, Jimi Hendrix.
The movie seemed doomed to fail even before it began shooting, with legal fights between filmmakers and the Hendrix estate who are planning their own film. The movie picked up steam when Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 from OutKast) was picked to play Jimi, and then went quiet for a while. Now it’s finally come to release date this Friday, and I’m sure the film will polarize fans.
On the one hand, Benjamin actually does a great job as Hendrix. He spent months learning how to play the guitar left-handed, which is great but I really didn’t care about that. What surprised me was how well he had the voice and mannerisms of Hendrix down pat. He finds that sharp contrast between the shy, vulnerable everyday man and the charismatic, ferocious stage performer and ignites the screen when it’s time to rock and roll.
The rest of the cast can’t live up to his performance. Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell and Ruth Negga all perform adequately as the women in his life. Poots in particular, playing Linda Keith, seemed to bring her character some dimension other than Jimi Hendrix’s lady friend. Andrew Buckley, who plays former Animals bassist-turned Hendrix manager Chas Chandler seems to working in a different film from scene to scene.
The movie picks a pivotal time in the life of Hendrix, from the time he’s discovered by Linda Keith at the Cheetah Club in 1966 to just before his performance at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. It’s the formation of The Experience, Jimi going over to London where he’s far more appreciated than the States. A lot is happening in the two-hour run time, and unfortunately most of it is glossed over pretty quickly.
Ridley chooses to focus more on Hendrix the man and his relationship with women specifically. If you’ve ever read anything about him you know that he was a notorious womanizer who generally had women all over town. Focusing on that aspect is fine, but the “Based On A True Story” tag at the beginning should let you know that not everything here is true.
One scene in particular got me riled up. After having some trouble at home, Jimi meets his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham at a bar. They talk, but things aren’t right. She gets up to make a phone call and Jimi gets upset. He takes the phone from her hand and beats her with it multiple times, leaving her face black and blue. This event did not occur. Etchingham herself has vehemently denied it happened. Why they decided that this needed to be in the movie, I have no idea.
The story wouldn’t be as troublesome handled with any amount of subtlety, but Ridley seems to be ignorant to the concept. The film plays like a hybrid of a studio biopic and a film school project. Random montages that lend nothing to the story, bizarre editing that is supposed to evoke a druggy kind of effect, and a million other things that give the feel of a Lifetime movie-of-the-week instead of a serious take on one of the most important musical lives in history.
There are a few really great scenes in the film. Even though I knew some of the stuff before it happened, I still got a kick out of stuff like Hendrix jamming with Cream and Eric Clapton getting pissed, or forcing Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell to learn “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in a very short amount of time so they could play it in front of Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
Jimi: All Is By My Side is a mixed bag of good and bad. It’s worth watching just to see Andre 3000 play the role of Hendrix, but there’s not a whole lot more than that to recommend. I think that there is an interesting movie here, but it’s much less so in it’s current form.