Jimi: All Is by My Side, Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley’s second foray in the director’s chair, is a biopic of famed guitarist Jimi Hendrix. André Benjamin, of Outkast fame, plays Hendrix. Benjamin happens to look so similar to Hendrix that I wonder if this movie was willed into existence for that very reason. Not that Hendrix isn’t deserving of a movie or several. Just another unknown in 1966, Hedrix exploded onto the scene one year later, but by the end of 1969—with only three albums recorded—he was dead and buried. Hendrix is arguably one of the greatest guitarists to ever live, and his brief, but lasting fame, could no doubt carry the weight of several movies, just as long as any of them are better than this.
Sadly, Hendrix is portrayed as another typical rock-n-roller. Explosive and charismatic with a guitar, reserved and detached without it. He doesn’t have any interest in standing for anything (he delivers a speech—poorly—that is reminiscent of Llyod Dobler’s speech about not wanting to sell anything, buy anything, etc.), staying with anyone or doing what he is told. Was Hendrix a counter-culture rebel or just another Lothario? Hard to tell. In the hands of Ridley and Benjamin, the left-handed guitar hero comes off somewhere between slow-witted and aloof.
The main crux of Jimi has less to do with Hendrix, the musician, and more to do with the women Hendrix slept with. He starts by trading in his Harlem girlfriend, Ida (Ruth Negga), for Linda (Imogen Poots), who climbed the rock-n-roll ladder via Keith Richard’s genitals. Linda latches on to Hendrix and convinces him to return with her to London, where she sets him up with a manager, Michael Jeffery (Burn Gorman). In London, Hendrix meets the redheaded Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell). Bye-bye brunette. After gigging a while, Hendrix meets an Islamic revolutionist/groupie from Milwaukee, Faye (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and trades in again. Never a guy to be held down for too long, Hendrix moves through women as quickly as he could work his fingers up the neck.
Ridley’s biopic focuses on the year leading up to Hendrix’s infamous June 4, 1967 show in London. Only two days prior, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had debuted, and Hendrix decided to open the show with the album’s title track. Here Ridley seeks his climax, and he couldn’t have made a worse choice.
Unfortunately, Experience Hendrix LLC, Hendrix’s estate, refused to release Hendrix’s songs for the movie and, thus, no Hendrix compositions. Clearly not Ridley’s intention, but the lack of “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” and “Castles Made of Sand” undermines the entire movie, and without them, Hendrix is reduced to a mere cover artist.
So, we have a less than compelling lead character, a biopic about a musician with nary a song from said musician, and a cliché depiction of sexual proclivities. What else could possibly derail this train? Ridley. The oddest aspect of Jimi is how Ridley, his cinematographer, Tim Fleming, and editors Hank Corwin and Chris Gill chose to tell their story. Jump cuts abound, the sound cuts out entirely, images overlap in odd and bizarre manners, static takes with lots of cutting and framing around the actors and action, and on and on. Why do Ridley and Co. try to reinvent the wheel? Are they trying to hide something? Are they trying to create mystery? Are they trying to see if it looks good? It doesn’t seem to add, and maybe it doesn’t detract, but it certainly does confuse.
Jimi: All Is By My Side (2014)
Written & Directed by: John Ridley
Produced by: Danny Bramson, Anthony Burns, Jeff Culotta, Brandon Freeman, Tristan Lynch, Sean McKittrick, Nigel Thomas
Starring: André Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Burn Gorman, Ruth Negga, Clare-Hope Ashitey
Open Road Films, Rated R, Running time 118 minutes, Released September 26, 2014