“Jimi:” Strong biopic of rock icon

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Despite a mainstream career that lasted a mere four years, Jimi Hendrix remains one of the most highly acclaimed musicians of the 20th century. Hendrix’s plaque at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates him as, “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”

Defying biopic conventions, “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” focuses on a truncated twelve-month span in Hendrix’s life from late 1966 to early 1967. The period was a pivotal time for Hendrix (André Benjamin –better known as André 3000, who is half of the hip-hop duo, OutKast). During this time, Hendrix was transitioning from an obscure back-up player in New York to an internationally famous rock musician.

Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix. Photo by Patrick Redmond.

Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix. Photo by Patrick Redmond.

Hendrix’s parents were alcoholics, who were mired in poverty. Their relationship was punctuated with a litany of violent clashes. As a result of this domestic unrest, Hendrix and his siblings were often raised by various relatives and placed in a succession of foster homes. None of this is depicted onscreen. Instead, we witness the psychological toll of Hendrix’s tumultuous upbringing and his estrangement from his parents indirectly. At one juncture, Linda interrupts her chastisement of Hendrix by asking whether she has begun to sound like Hendrix’s mother, he touchingly replies, “I wouldn’t know.” Later, after Hendrix has achieved some notoriety in England, he places a long distance call to his father in Seattle. This poignant conversation, in which we barely hear the voice of Hendrix’s father, conveys how distant and emotionally detached he is from his son.

The film also skips over Hendrix’s early years as a performer, when he was playing gigs on the so-called chitlin’ circuit. Back then, he backed up such popular acts such as the Isley Brothers and Little Richard.

Following the front end of a framing device, the film commences in earnest. Sporting the stage name, Jimmy James, the protagonist is playing behind a blues act, Curtis Knight and the Squires. He leaves the band to form his own group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The trio performs in various Greenwich Village clubs. These vignettes recall those of the bohemian scene in last year’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” from the Coen Brothers.

One night, a sparse, disengaged audience includes Linda Keith (Imogen Poots). She’s an English model, best known as being the girlfriend of Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. Although others seem oblivious to Hendrix’s guitar virtuosity, Linda is immediately stunned by it. She is also feels a powerful sexual attraction to Hendrix.

Linda tries to persuade Hendrix to accompany his guitar playing by doing vocals and to incorporate on-stage patter into his act. Initially, Hendrix protests, contending that he hates his voice and that feels awkward about addressing the audience. However, Linda is persistent and eventually convinces Hendrix to overcome his reticence.

Next, Linda convinces Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), bass player for the Animals to attend one of Hendrix’s shows. Chas is also blown away by Hendrix’s talent. Since Eric Burdon, the lead singer of the Animals, has developed an aversion towards flying, Chas is looking to segue to managing acts.  He concludes that Hendrix might become commercially marketable. Chas convinces an initially reluctant Hendrix to leave Harlem and move to London.

In London, Hendrix starts gigging with his reconstituted trio, which eventually includes Noel Redding (Oliver Bennett) and Mitch Mitchell (Tony Dunlea). Hendrix finds a new girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Arwell). She’s a working class gal, who works as a hairdresser. It is a stark contrast to Linda’s posh background.

A fellow American ex-pat, Ida (Ruth Negga), exposes Hendrix to heightened racial awareness. She introduces him to Black Power advocate, Michael X (Adrian Lester). He insists that Hendrix should interject black consciousness into his lyrical content and stop pandering to the sensibilities of white audience. As he puts it, “You’ll never be nothin’ to them but a curiosity, their electric wog.”  Hendrix responds that he’s not interested in racial or musical categories. Hendrix insists that he doesn’t want to be limited to a specific genre or demographic. He wants to reach out to all people with his message of love. Despite their differences, the two good naturedly smoke a joint together.

Another well-mounted scene portrays Hendrix’s group playing at the Savile Theatre for a launch of the Beatles’ latest album, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.” The Fab Four themselves and their manager, Brian Epstein, are in the audience. Although his bandmates suggest it is disrespectful, Hendrix insists on opening their set with the title song from the Beatles’ new release. Hendrix’s inspired rendition ignites the audience.

Casting André Benjamin in the lead role proves an inspired choice. He seems to be channeling Hendrix’s offbeat charisma. Benjamin nails Hendrix’s odd amalgam of deep-seated personal vulnerability and unqualified confidence in his guitar playing. Hendrix grew up in Seattle and Benjamin hails from Atlanta. Nevertheless, Benjamin nails the halting cadences of Hendrix’s melodious, lilting speaking voice and his proclivity for intermittent stuttering, whenever he became nervous. Benjamin simulates playing the guitar left-handed, behind his back, and with his teeth. Although Benjamin sings the lyrics, it is Waddy Wachtel, who provides Hendrix’s guitar licks.

John Ridley follows up his screenplay for the Oscar winning, “Twelve Years a Slave” by directing this film from his own script. Although the film is episodic, it is imbued with a compelling narrative trajectory. Ridley keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. He shows a particular gift for crafting dialogue. Ridley frequently makes effective use of title cards to announce the film’s chapters. He also uses them to identify various famous characters passing through the film. This obviates the need for gratuitous scenes to introduce these background characters.

It should be noted that the film’s verisimilitude has been aggressively challenged by several of Hendrix’s peers. Most prominently, Kathy Etchingham has been outspoken in her castigation of “Jimi: All Is by My Side.” The film depicts Jimi as being emotionally abusive and physically violent with Etchingham, his then girlfriend. However, Etchingham has denounced the film as fictitious, insisting that Hendrix was a gentle man. Moreover, Etchingham described the time that she spent as Hendrix’s girlfriend as some of the best years of her life.

Hendrix is best remembered for such classics as “All Along the Watch Tower, “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” The rights to these signature tunes belong to his estate, Experience Hendrix LLC. They denied the filmmaker’s request to use these songs.  As a consequence, none of these tunes are included in “Jimi: All Is by My Side.” The filmmakers improvise by recreating songs performed by Hendrix during his early days in London. These are augmented by songs not associated with Hendrix, but which are contemporaneous with this period.

“Jimi: All Is by My Side,” does a masterful job of capturing a sense of time and place. The film is full of period details, particularly the wild hairstyles and eccentric clothing that prevailed in the mid 60’s.

The film embodies Hendrix’s objections to demarcating music by genres or people by race. Despite the absence of Hendrix’s signature songs, “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” is a strong biopic of a legendary performer.

***1/2 R (for language including sexual references, and some drug content) 117 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lerner prose@gmail.com.

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