The A.V. Club and a few other sites have posted a clip from All Is By My Side, the long-suffering Jimi Hendrix biopic written and directed by John Ridley, Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave. As the A.V. Club notes, the film has suffered “a series of…delays and setbacks,” not the least of which was the news that the Jimi Hendrix Estate would not be granting permission for the use of any of the guitar legend’s original recordings. The film will be getting its U.S. premiere at South by Southwest, before wider release possibly some time this summer.
This was one of the few films I was able to see at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. Assuming no major changes have been made since that time (and that my memory serves reasonably well), I can say that this is probably not the biopic Hollywood had in mind. I definitely don’t see it dominating the box office like recent pop music biopics Ray or Walk the Line. And that’s too bad, because it’s a damn good film, provided you can put aside any expectations you might have for the sort of hero worship typical of a film like this.
The narrative deals with a period of Hendrix’s life just before his career was about to take off, ending just before his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. It still depicts some events and performances from the legend of Jimi Hendrix, though only die-hard fans will likely be familiar with them. And while audiences prefer movies like this to be filled with celebrities they know playing other celebrities they know, this one deals more with historical also-rans than it does with household names. As for our hero, these are his lean years, and our onscreen Hendrix is not just struggling to make it as a musician but is also wrestling with his very human, very imperfect self. Scenes unapologetically depict his problematic treatment of women and his complex relationship with race. The movie is moody, nuanced, and at times slow, which again serves to make it less of a blockbuster and more of a serious look at a complicated man.
You can’t really tell from the clip now circulating online, but André Benjamin – or André 3000, if you prefer – is excellent in the film. He’s an eerily convincing Hendrix, off- and onstage (save and except an ill-advised credit sequence that has him looking stylish but badly pretending to play acoustic guitar). Even beyond his high-profile celebrity impersonation, Benjamin lends emotional authenticity to a very specific and yet convoluted personality. The aforementioned clip with Benjamin and Imogen Poots (as Linda Keith, girlfriend of Keith Richards, largely responsible for helping Hendrix get noticed in England) doesn’t look like much, but in context it is an emotionally affecting moment in a deep if troubled relationship.
But what about the music? How do you make a movie about Jimi Hendrix without Hendrix’s visionary psychedelic sci-fi rock guitar blasting through your Dolby surround? You forget about the studio albums and restrict the performances to blues songs and covers played at live gigs – not difficult for the years depicted onscreen – and you hire a trio of seasoned (if not, in their own right, legendary) studio musicians – Waddy Wachtel, Lee Sklar, and Kenny Aronoff – to do their very best aural impersonations. The result is extremely convincing (not only because of the musical performances but because Benjamin, Ridley and co. have carefully cultivated what’s onscreen so we actually believe Benjamin is playing the guitar). Although Hendrix was indeed an innovator, his innovations are now almost a half century old. It’s not such an incredible feat for an accomplished guitarist who makes a living copying other people’s styles (essentially a studio musician’s job description) to pull-off an imitation of Hendrix’s tone and musical mannerisms passable enough to sound convincing in this context.
Again, despite the subject matter, and John Ridley’s recent notoriety, I don’t expect this film to have very wide appeal. I hope I’m wrong. It’s well wrought and certainly deserves to be rewarded for it.