Here’s how you make a movie about Jimi Hendrix without the participation of his fractious/litigious estate.
You frame it within a brief window, just when his fame was blossoming. The film opens in 1966, when he was an anonymous side man playing New York clubs, and ends just before his incendiary breakthrough performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967. That lets you avoid legal action from his family, which wasn’t going to be portrayed in a flattering light.
And since that family didn’t grant music rights, for performance scenes you recreate traces of a few of his great early cover songs, “Wild Thing,” and a memorable blast through “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Maybe “Jimi: All is By My Side” is as good a Jimi Hendrix bio-pic as we’ll ever get, at least so long as there are legal entanglements strangling the late guitar god’s legacy. It’s not as giddy or all-encompassing as “Great Balls of Fire” or “Get On Up.” This is more a sketch, just one telling chapter in his life, rather like what “Backbeat” did with the early Beatles.
“All is By My Side” is an artistic overreach for Oscar winning screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years A Slave”), turned writer-director here. He strains to set the scene, peppering the film with news footage of Mod London, the TV shows of the era including those where bands such as The Animals performed. He rarely finds the pop art in this florid, musically inventive Sgt. Pepper’s era.
But he scored one great coup landing Andre Benjamin, Outkast singer and sometime actor (“Be Cool”) as Hendrix. He’s older than Hendrix ever was — close to 40, when Hendrix died at 27. But he nails the voice, the laid-back flower child vibe. This is the Hendrix of flaky TV appearances, dreamy sci-fi idealist and free spirit with only hints of the drink that made him a mean, abusive drunk, or the drugs that killed him at the peak of his fame.
Ridley tells the story mainly through the eyes of the British women who entered Jimi’s life. Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) is a posh, spoiled Brit model who frets that the only thing anyone will remember her for is being Keith Richards’ girlfriend. But she knows genius when she hears and sees it, even if Jimmy, as he was then-known, was just a sideman for R&B singer Curtis Knight, picking at his bad complexion and snapping gum in between show-off solos.
Keith urges reluctant people in the business to check Hendrix out, finds him a manager and nags him to take the stage “like you actually want to amount to something.”
Andrew Buckley plays Chas Chandler, who quit as bassist for The Animals to bring Jimi to Britain and spends his last dime making him a star. Burn Gorman makes a feral impression as later manager Michael Jefferey, who changes “Jimmy” to “Jimi.”
Hayley Atwell is Kathy Etchingham, the short-tempered working class groupie who became Jimi’s steady girlfriend, much to the chagrin of Linda Keith.
But it is Benjamin who pulls this film out of its formulaic rut with his mastery of the Hendrix onstage mystique and offstage patter in that sort of quizzical Dylan-Meets-Andy-Warhol voice. They’re auditioning drummers for The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but Mitch Mitchell may be too intense.
“You can’t knock a cat for bein’ fierce!”
British bobbies (cops) hassle the inter-racial couple, Jimi and Kathy, for walking hand-in-hand.
“What are we about? Nothing. EVERYthing.”
Interviewers are mesmerized by him – “When the power of love takes over the love of power, that’s when things will change.”
Whatever the film’s other virtues, Benjamin’s Hendrix makes sure we all “look at that pimp with the backwards guitar” every moment he’s on screen.
MPAA Rating: R for language including sexual references, and some drug content
Cast: Andre Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Burn Gorman
Credits: Written and directed by John Ridley. An XLrator Media release.
Running time: 1:57