How Many Licks Does it Take?
I was as skeptical as anyone, going into the Jimi Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All is By My Side. Overshadowing the early buzz about André Benjamin's uncanny and electrifying performance was news that a purple haze of rights issues kept writer/director John Ridley from using any Hendrix-penned songs in his film. That's right: no "Voodoo Child", no "All Along the Watchtower", no "Hey Joe". But Ridley and company rose to the challenge, making All is By My Side one of the most interesting films of 2014.
Ridley focuses on a single, seminal year of Hendrix's rise to prominence, sidestepping the traditional biopic structure with a narrative that's as fluid as its hero is aloof. This makes the two-hour run-time as bold a statement as Hendrix's playing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" two days after the album's release, to a packed house that included George Harrison and Paul McCartney.
Those looking for an A-to-Z reporting on Hendrix will come away disappointed. Ridley and his team meddle with time, space, and media in putting together a film that aims to capture the "Jimi Hendrix experience" (sorry). Unlike the recent James Brown biopic, Get On Up, however, one can't simply do a re-edit and get a fuller picture of the subject's life. We learn much from dialogue, body language, and the way in which this movie about revolutionary sound frequently drops into silence. Hendrix's childhood is summed up beautifully in a heartbreaking phone call with his estranged father; no flashbacks necessary.
If comedian Bill Hicks was right, and Hendrix was some kind of alien space Jesus sent to teach us about love and to reinvent rock, then All is By My Side is the perfect movie to capture all the attendant weirdness that implies. Benjamin plays Hendrix as a spaced-out, supremely dedicated artist who doesn't quite get people. The film is a ménage à quatre between Hendrix, his music, and two vastly different rock groupies: Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), a British socialite who believes so fervently in the music that she temporarily falls victim to the man; and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a good-time girl who gets more than she bargained for when falling in love with a musical genius. As the film points out, Hendrix was a lyrical master of soulful and social observation, but he fell far short in the interpersonal relationships that should have, by all rights, informed his professed giant heart.
Ridley's experiment in stream-of-consciousness biography is not unprecedented. In fact, it's the perfect companion piece to Julian Schnabel's 1996 film, Basquiat. The two pieces are so similar that it's easy to wonder if Ridley simply swapped out 80s abstract art for 60s abstract guitar riffs. Both movies are about awkward, drug-abusing black artists struggling with identity and fame; both feature a dichotomy of key female relationships; both nail the ups, downs, and maddening spiritual contradictions inherent in having been born creative; and both are anchored by unforgettable star turns.
Yes, let's get back to Benjamin. Those who mostly remember him as one half of Outkast (aka, "Andre 3000") will be positively floored. Between him, Jared Leto, and David Bowie (who nearly stole Basquiat, playing Andy Warhol), there's almost enough contrary evidence to shrug off the "musician/actor" willies that have become cliche. I could dig into the nuances that made me love the job he does here, but my highest compliment is that he very quickly made me believe in Jimi Hendrix as a character--not as a historical figure or as an actor playing the hell out of a part.
He shares the screen with two admission-worthy actresses in Poots and Atwell; I don't want to give Ridley's script short shrift, but I was wildly impressed by the realistic characters they built. Just as Benjamin's Hendrix is a frustrating composite of post-racial humanism and base aggression, Keith and Etchingham come across as smart, head-strong women who put up with mental and physical abuse long after either should have sent Hendrix packing. Atwell and Poots help us understand why they stick by their man, to a point, without allowing their characters to come across as plot-necessitated doormats. A shout-out is in order for Ruth Negga, as well, who plays the eerily angelic dark conscience of the rock groupie.
It's weird to say that I neither noticed nor minded the lack of Hendrix's greatest hits in the movie. All is By My Side is such a bold portrait of attitude and art that I simply wanted to see and hear what the filmmakers would do next. We get a full sense of Jimi Hendrix as tinkerer, rebel, monster, and prophet. Ridley's alternately blissful, challenging, frustrating biopic is a fitting, shades-of-gray tribute to a man who saw everything as colors.