‘Jimi: All Is by My Side’: A Hendrix not yet experienced
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In 1967, two days after the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Jimi Hendrix took the stage at the Saville Theater in London, warned the audience (which included Paul McCartney) to “Watch out for your ears!” and proceeded to rock out a version of “Sgt. Pepper” that blew away the room.
This moment — which lives on in a grainy YouTube video — is re-created near the end of writer-director John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” with Andre Benjamin delivering a mesmerizing, electric performance in which he seems to be channeling the spirit of arguably the greatest guitarist rock has ever known.
Benjamin spent months learning how to play the guitar left-handed. He does a credible job of imitating Hendrix’s unique speaking style, which was quite as insanely unique as James Brown’s, but was fascinating in its own right. The makeup, the hair, the wardrobe, even Hendrix’s way with a cigarette — Benjamin’s got it down. At times “Jimi: All Is By My Side” feels pure authentic.
More often, though, it’s meandering and melodramatic, with far too many scenes of Hendrix jabbering and squabbling with two key female figures in his life, and not enough of the music.
In fact, we don’t hear a note of any of Hendrix’s signature tunes. No “Hey Joe,” no “Purple Haze,” no “Crosstown Traffic,” not a note of “The Wind Cries Mary.” Apparently the rights to these songs could be not be secured.
So how do you make a biopic about Jimi Hendrix without including any of hits? The awkwardly titled “Jimi: All Is By My Side” focuses on the one-year period in Hendrix’s life just before he exploded.
Imogen Poots plays Linda Keith, girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. Linda spots Jimi playing at the Cheetah Club in New York and is instantly convinced he’s the next rock god. Linda latches onto Jimi, following him everywhere, staring daggers at women who approach him and directing his career. (According to the film, there’s no romance, but we do get a ridiculous scene where Keith Richards whines to his manager about his girlfriend parading about with Jimi.)
Benjamin captures Hendrix’ cooler-than-cooler persona, but Jimi seems to be a passenger in his own life, just along for the ride as first Linda and then his new manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley) tell him what he needs to do to become a rock star.
Once the setting moves to London, Jimi forms the trio that will become the Jimi Hendrix Experience, lights up the stage in smallish clubs, and takes up with Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell). We don’t get a whole lot of insight into the creative gods that inspired Hendrix or the demons that led him to drug abuse. Instead, there’s a lot of fighting with Kathy, including one brutal scene in which Hendrix beats her with a telephone. (The real Kathy Etchingham says the film is wildly inaccurate and there was no domestic violence.)
Other scenes go nowhere. Jimi has a meeting with civil rights activist and would-be revolutionary Michael X (who would later be convicted of murder and hanged in a prison in Spain) at the latter’s handsomely appointed London home. Jimi digs Michael X’s weed, but he has little interest in the lecture he’s getting about how he should use the stage as a pulpit for change.
Ridley, who won the Academy Award for penning “12 Years a Slave,” has crafted a screenplay with some fine dialogue, and he has nice eye for the swinging London scene. Benjamin is a standout. But a film about the year before Jimi Hendrix became a star is a little like a movie that ends with Jackie Robinson on the top step of the dugout, or Elvis walking into Sun Records.
XLrator Media presents a film written and directed by John Ridley. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated R (for language including sexual references, and some drug content). Opens Friday at local theaters.