by Nathan Sacks
Like Deep Impact and Armageddon, hot on the heels of the James Brown biopic Get on Up is Jimi: All is By My Side. Starring Andre Benjamin (better known to many as Andre 3000 of OutKast), All is By My Side vividly recreates the slang and fashions of 1966 London, while only rarely falling into the trap of rock nostalgia clichés and, in fact, ends up becoming a celebration of the purity and fearlessness of Hendrix’s approach to music.
Director: John Ridley
Producers: Danny Bramson, Anthony Burns, Jeff Culotta, Brandon Freeman, Tristan Lynch, Sean McKittrick, Nigel Thomas
Writer: John Ridley
Cinematographer: Tim Fleming
Editors: Hank Corwin, Chris Gill
Music: Danny Bramson, Wassy Wachtel
Cast: Andre Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Burn Gorman
US Theatrical Release: September 26, 2014
US Distributor: Open Road Films
There are a few films that stand out in relation to Jimi: All is By My Side. One is the 1995 film Backbeat, which covered the early, pre-songwriting days of the Beatles, therefore avoiding mammoth Lennon/McCartney licensing fees. The Hendrix family estate, which is notoriously protective of Jimi’s catalog, refused to allow any songs in All is By My Side. Therefore the film has to skip over some musical bits when showing the recording of the first album Are You Experienced? but otherwise the lack of Hendrix compositions is not a major flaw in this film.
The other film this reminds me of is Velvet Goldmine, where David Bowie notoriously forbade any of his songs on the soundtrack, marking a keen absence in a film that is basically about his life. Like Velvet Goldmine, Jimi has a narrative threadbare quality and does not shy away from the ugly side of its subject’s behavior.
The movie is also distinguished in that it gives almost equal time to female roles. Imogen Poots is Linda Keith, the teenage model who first discovered quiet guitarist Jimmy James playing backup for Curtis Knight & the Squires to an audience of a dozen people. Keith, then the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, tries to enlist the help of their manager Andrew “Loog” Oldham, who pronounces him “rubbish.” Keith is tenacious and goes through every connection she has in the music industry. No one is interested except Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), bassist for the Animals, who is planning to quit and manage some new acts. He knows the blues and realizes that Jimi is something special. Before long, he has managed to convince a reluctant Hendrix to go to England, where white audiences are more receptive to black blues players.
Jimi and Linda have a connection, but it is promptly cut off when Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a hairdresser, enters the picture. Theirs is a romance that has its shares of troubles. Director John Ridley does a great job making each of these women full, rounded characters—yes, Kathy is portrayed as sometimes frivolous and in love with her partner’s rock n roll stardom, she is also acutely human, capable of warmth and understanding, not always jealous or mean-spirited or soul-sucking as these types of roles tend to be. Atwell does a great job inhabiting the part.
The main acting accolades, of course, have to go to Andre, who is perhaps my favorite musician of the past 20 years. He had been rumored to be working on the role longer than a decade ago, and now at 39, he is a great deal older than the part—a decade and a half at least. But being far past Hendrix’s age was probably a minor challenge, compared to other difficulties.
One thing about Hendrix that makes him so amazing to watch, and one of the few guitar geniuses that no one can really imitate, is that he was left-handed, but played a right-handed guitar upside down. Benjamin is right-handed and switching to a left-handed guitar is no easy thing, let alone playing it upside down. According to Benjamin, who actually is a guitar player (of limited skill, by his own admission), it took months of grueling practice to mime the parts in this film. He is not actually playing, but he did master the fingering to look like a reasonable facsimile, and that by itself is almost as difficult. Imagine being asked to play exactly like Mozart, but on a piano whose keys are inverted, while hanging upside down. That should give you a general idea of the level of difficulty here.
Then, on top of that, there’s the factor that Hendrix played these difficult guitar parts with such ease and confidence. Making all of his performances look natural and unrehearsed must have been the hardest part. Benjamin even kept in character during the entire Dublin shoot, speaking to Ridley and his fellow actors in Hendrix’s dated hippie-dippie slang. All of this is Daniel Day-Lewis-level commitment and far more than I ever expected from 3000 as an actor.
This fan of Hendrix’s guitar-playing appreciates that so much time was put into making Andre’s fretwork look authentic. Often in music biopics, the actors, no matter how much they embody the part, look less than convincing playing instruments onstage. Benjamin’s past as a charismatic rapper and performer comes in handy here. Considering Hendrix was so dedicated to pushing forward the guitar as a sonic instrument of infinite variety and capacity, it makes sense that the film would put so much care into making the playing look and sound authentic.
Overall, it’s an uncanny impersonation, not just because Andre looks the part somewhat. There are some things that even Benjamin cannot emulate—he doesn’t possess Hendrix’s giant hands, for instance—but he changes his entire voice, losing the nasal southern tones we associate so heavily with OutKast, and replaces that with Hendrix’s pacific northwest gilt, his protruding lower lip, and his overall soft voice and booming tone. Late in the film there is the famous performance of the Experience doing an almost punk version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” two days after the album release, in front of an audience that included the Beatles. I have seen this performance many times in various rock documentaries and was amazed at Benjamin’s impersonation, his commitment to the moments I remember like moving up the fret board with the palm of his hand, telling the audience to “cover your ears,” the part where he throws the cigarette down just before singing—overall, it was an uncanny recreation of the television experience. You can see in this scene how Hendrix and Benjamin, though very different types of artists, approach their music with similar purities of intention.
This is part and parcel of most biopics, but Ridley does a great job illuminating his subject’s flaws while not ever treating them as the unfortunate but necessary affectations of the “genius artist.” Ridley portrays Hendrix as inarticulate at times and sometimes too quick to resort to stock hippie phrases like “when the power of love overcomes the love of power” and rambling about aliens to a groupie. Race is not a major factor in the film, but it does come up a few times as Hendrix is accosted by British police and meets with radical drug dealer Michael X, who describes the history of segregation in London and asks the guitarist to be a symbol to the black British as Hendrix tries to demure, saying “that’s not my bag, man.” The subtext here, as is common throughout the film, is Hendrix’s relationship with white women and his unease with African-American audiences.
In fact, Ridley’s script goes deep into Hendrix’s personality and pathologies. There is of course the matter of his absent mother, which fed his idealized conceptions of the women he slept with, as well as a distant, terrorizing father. Ridley also implies that Hendrix might have had depression, social anxiety, acute fear of conflict, as well as violent mood swings and dependency (both chemical and physical) issues. On the other hand, his generally mild demeanor belied a lot of confidence about his guitar skills (as well it should). This is most hilariously expressed in the scene where Eric Clapton invites Hendrix to play Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” (a song he would later massacre at the Monterey Pop Festival) with Cream onstage, and unplugs his guitar and walks out upon realizing he is no longer needed.
The film is meandering at times, focusing on intimate and small moments in Hendrix’s everyday conversations with women, while other parts are formula biopic, such as when Jimi’s Monterey Pop Festival gig is put on notice after he spends an entire performance tuning his guitar. Thankfully, by only spending a year early in Hendrix’s career, we are spared the common narrative of his drug-fueled spiral and eventual death. In fact, All is By My Side ends on a happy note, as Benjamin-as-Hendrix tries to explain to his audience his pure and transcendent love for music, and how he hopes it has the power to inspire others. Maybe it’s not the note of realism that a typical biopic would choose to end on (that would be a scene of Hendrix asphyxiating on barbiturates), but it honors the musician’s spirit perhaps more than any other ending. For once, a musical biopic is as much about the music as the man. I can dig.