It’s easy to hear that there is a film about Hendrix with no original music from the man himself and scoff…there’s no way that kind of story could be interesting, purposeful, or even remotely compelling. But in an oddball, aloof, alluring way (maybe much like Jimi himself), “Jimi: All Is By My Side” is one of the most compelling music related biopics I’ve ever seen. But it’s not without damning flaws that are impossible to dismiss.

If you’re thirsty for a progressive take on films, especially biopics, yet want a film about Jimi Hendrix to focus on his music/creativity, this film will simultaneously delight and piss you off. At it’s best, it veers away rebelliously from any expectations of what a biopic should be. This movie is a celebration of minutiae. Here we view a slice of Jimi’s life, as interpreted by the director, through what feels like a keyhole. There are only blurry hints of his tumultuous upbringing, subsequent dues paying and his impending godhood. To the credit of the film, we don’t necessarily feel the need to explore those blurry hints either. This slice hones in on a formative year-and-change in London between 1966-67 or so, and it feels perfect and epic enough in itself. At it’s worst, it’s a detached collage that takes maybe a bit too much creative license with historical revisionism.

The deliberate focus by writer-director John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) is novel, giving us what is in effect the birth of bottled lightning. To try and cover the scope of Hendrix’s life, musical genius, love interests, drug abuse, tastes in clothing, epic shows, epic show fails, and tragic fall even in three hours would have immediately shuttled this story into the all too full category of “overworked biopics”.

The strength of this film is that giving it such clear boundaries allowed it to be it’s own kind of contained chaos. It was kind of like watching a wild horse thrash around in a pen just after it’s been captured, eventually calming down to a point where it can be tamed… the first third of the movie jumps around time and space, with choppy dialogue, isolated fragments of conversation, and pieces of scenes that all add up to maddeningly confusing. Then, if patient enough, you might get the feeling that Ridley is giving us his idea of what it would have been like to meet a young Hendrix during these formative years. Maybe he was unfocused, tangential, and the definition of a free spirit. Conversation with him was probably as disorienting and ethereal as the film introduces itself. The beginning of the movie is an immersion into a universe, systematically deprogramming you by toning down large themes typical of the genre, and in turn and blowing up minutiae. Choosing to focus on the sound of fingers sliding across frets while muting every other sound in the scene….. zooming in on strings, seemingly out of nowhere… blowing out the feedback from an amp firing up as Hendrix gets ready to jam with Clapton and Cream. These things don’t belong in polished movies about rock legends. Or should they?

The ever elusive and chameleonic Andre Benjamin delivers what will undoubtedly be touted as his best on-screen performance to date. For those who are longtime fans of Outkast’s more reclusive half, this won’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as how Dre has long been an acolyte of Jimi in style, aesthetic and artistic approach. On a deeper level, one senses that Benjamin is treating the fledgling Jimi character with a tenderness and care that comes from being able to relate…. both artists (Jimi and Andre) seem to have been charged with the precarious work of channeling cosmic creative forces while still having to relate to common earthlings. Andre 3000 has long struggled with this very challenge publicly, and he seems to emit an empathy for Jimi’s awkwardness that reverently gushes from the screen. As his characterization ambles about London, prodded along by love interests and music manager, Benjamin gives viewers a reason to be thankful that Hendrix found love, or rather, that it found him.

Linda Keiths (Imogen Poots) is the steady heroine, swooping in to pluck him from the muck of Greenwich Village and carry him off across the pond, away from obscurity and an unappreciative America. Framed as the first one to believe in him, it may be tough for the layman to understand why she would even give a damn about this dude. From a music nerd standpoint, maybe it’s because she was Keith Richard’s girlfriend and had a nose for greatness? I don’t know… That’s never quite explored in the film, but it doesn’t feel like a gap, just more like a minor detail that would have bogged down a tale that is flighty by design. She sets him up with his manager, former bass player for the Animals Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), and the guys who would become his band, the Experience. While Keiths gives our protagonist purpose, her counterpart Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell) seems to give him some sort of grounding, in a party-girl way. We know that recently, Etchingham has had some serious issues with how she and their relationship were portrayed in this script (especially a scene that depicts Hendrix beating her down with a phone, which does feel rather arbitrary). If Ridley did soil Jimi’s character just to move the story forward, that’s a major fail, in my book anyway.

Another love interest does present herself later in the film, apparently a fictionalized composite of women from Jimi’s life, Ida (played by Ruth Negga). She also happens to be the only woman of color, and is conveniently charged with the responsibility of reminding Jimi about his responsibility to make music for black people, and introducing him to Michael X. She also shadily plants the seeds of dissent between him and Kathy, which I’m sure Black women who see the film (at least the ones I know) won’t be too thrilled about…. but again, Ridley seems to be reaching for things to help move the story forward. And Jimi, himself, as if without these people he would have been completely lost (and happy about it).

And that is the biggest weak point of the film. For every moment we’re given what could be a thoughtful glimpse into the pensive, wandering, hilarious thought process of a hero we never really quite got to know and the things he loved, we’re given two moments of grasping for straws and time-sucking meandering. We’re presented a Jimi with no real drive and motivations of his own, bounced around and guided by external forces. And while an arguably brilliant take on the biopic genre, and a solid job by a strong cast, we still haven’t gotten the Jimi dramatization we need (or that he deserves)… but maybe we’re getting closer. Whatever your relationship with Jimi and his music, you should watch this one and consider it a small imperfect piece of a puzzle we’re all still putting together.


tweeting from @sumkilla


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