By Jess Lomas
August 13, 2014
Before Jimi Hendrix (Andre Benjamin) lit his guitar on fire at Monterey Pop Festival, or played Woodstock, he wore cheetah-print shirts in a struggling R&B band. So says John Ridley’s Jimi: All Is by My Side, a biopic that tries to be as independent and free spirited as its protagonist.
Faced with the challenge of withheld rights on Hendrix’s most famous songs, Ridley did what most would have done in his position and focused on the musical icon’s rise to fame; specifically, the year between Jimi’s “discovery” by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) and his departure for the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Showing this period of Hendrix’s life, rather than the drug-hazed years of success prior to his untimely death, Ridley is forced to create drama where perhaps there wasn’t much to begin with, amplifying relationships, particularly with women, and tuning in to Jimi’s increasing spiritual vibrations.
Benjamin is undeniably brilliant as Hendrix; not only physically resembling the musician but perfectly capturing his charisma, mannerisms, and dream-weaver attitude. One can’t imagine another actor embodying the role as flawlessly as he has; that the rest of the movie fails to measure up to the lead performance is hardly surprising.
It’s disappointing to note the screenplay only gives us, despite Benjamin’s best efforts, a one-dimensional portrait of this complex man. Coming to the picture with little or no prior knowledge of the legend’s life, an audience could be forgiven for believing Hendrix to be a pliable character entirely moulded by those around him, lacking in individual will and prone to bouts of domestic violence. None of these issues are dealt with in depth, despite the feature’s nearly two-hour runtime, and though there are some commendable attempts at artistic filmmaking and sound design, Ridley (a recent Oscar winner for writing 12 Years a Slave) has nonetheless delivered a product bordering on vapid.
The supporting performances are strong. Hayley Atwell as Jimi’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham is particularly arresting whenever on screen. Andrew Buckley as Animals musician-turned-manager Chas Chandler, who helped Jimi crack the London scene, is also highly entertaining.
Jimi: All Is by My Side misses the true essence of Hendrix; that he was the kind of musician to come around once in a lifetime, and the truly interesting things about him were not the women and not the drugs, but the music: just a man and his guitar.
Jimi: All is By My Side plays the Melbourne International Film Festival August 16, 2014.