The first thing to know about John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is By My Side” is that the writer-director was unable to secure rights to any of Jimi Hendrix’s original songs or recordings: This turns out to provide both the film’s biggest strengths and biggest shortcomings. Less a traditional biopic than a strategically limited portrait of a particular time, place and person, the film effectively brings pre-stardom Hendrix to life without ever tapping into the source of what made him such a magnetic performer, or elucidating just what drove him to create a lifetime’s worth of music in the span of four years. Unsatisfying on a musical level, it’s nonetheless a well-acted, sporadically impressive piece of filmmaking from the “12 Years a Slave” scribe, and the guitarist’s evergreen popularity should power healthy arthouse interest.
Covering the roughly yearlong period (1966-67) in which Hendrix went from a New York City sideman to a burgeoning Swinging London star (the film ends with Hendrix in the airport, en route to his career-making, literally incendiary set at the Monterey Pop Festival), “Jimi: All Is By My Side” features Andre “3000” Benjamin as the titular axman. Though Hendrix dominates the majority of the film, the initial focus is on Linda Keith (the ever-charming Imogen Poots), a stylish, 20-year-old aspiring British talent scout who has arrived in New York intent on becoming known as more than just Keith Richards’ longtime girlfriend. She spots Hendrix in the near-empty Cheetah Club, playing with Curtis Knight and the Squires, and is immediately taken with the shy guitar genius, inviting him back to her place and bonding over Bob Dylan and LSD.
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Before long, Hendrix, then known as Jimmy James, finds himself living a split life, shacking up in Harlem with local girl Faye Pridgeon (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who chides him for spending all of his money on “white-boy records,” and haunting the Cafe Wha? with a coterie of British glitterati. Without putting too neat a bow on it, this provides a nice microcosm of the racial-cultural dichotomy with which Hendrix would struggle for the rest of his short life. When Linda asks to accompany him to Harlem, or Faye asks to check out his gigs in Greenwich Village, Hendrix’s response is the same: “There’s nothing there for you.”
Keith and manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley) gradually convince Hendrix to head for the more fertile environs of London, where he forms the Jimi Hendrix Experience, starts to develop his explosive onstage persona, and begins a relationship with fiery scenester Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell). Without the need (or ability) to cram all of Hendrix’s career highlights into a two-hour running time, Ridley lingers artfully on the downtime in between all the history making, moving from scene to scene, conversation to conversation with a loose, almost free-associative rhythm. (A minor episode featuring Jimi and Kathy lounging on a London park bench, listening to a Salvation Army band, is perhaps the loveliest sequence in the film.)
Taking on the most demanding role of his career, Benjamin proves a pleasantly intuitive choice to play Hendrix. During his stint as one half of storied rap duo Outkast, Benjamin managed to dabble in outsized onstage flamboyance while still remaining fundamentally introverted, and became a potent sex symbol while shying away from the most outward displays of machismo — both traits he shares with his character.
Here, Benjamin impressively channels some of that life experience while nailing the hesitant ebb and flow of Hendrix’s vocal patterns. One late scene, in which Jimi seduces a fellow American expat (Ruth Negga) at a used bookstore while rambling half-coherently about a favorite paperback sci-fi novel, excitingly conveys his unique mixture of bashful dorkiness and space-traveler allure.
Benjamin disappears into the role as much as can be expected (especially considering he’s a full decade older than Hendrix was at the time of his death), but one strains for any indication of what the man is thinking, or what sparked his artistic breakthrough. Though his unrivaled guitar heroics still get the most attention, Hendrix’s seemingly overnight development into a world-class pop songwriter was just as remarkable: “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Fire” and “Manic Depression” were all composed during the time period covered by the film, yet never does Hendrix convincingly appear to be an artist in bloom.
As the film goes on, one begins to question whether Ridley really cracked the character, especially when he shows the mild-mannered Jimi lashing out physically against Kathy, beating her bloody with a pay-phone receiver. The scene strikes an odd note for several reasons: For one, the real-life Etchingham has been quite vocal in her insistence that the incident never actually happened. And even if it did, it feels totally out of character with the image of Hendrix presented elsewhere. The film’s Jimi may be selfish and emotionally unavailable at times, but his capacity for sudden violence seems to come from a place the pic never otherwise explores.
And then there’s the simple matter of the music. While ace guitarist Waddy Wachtel provides some suitably “Hendrix-ish” noodling and covers of blues standards, rarely does what we hear jibe with the breathless superlatives the assembled characters are constantly offering up. The film’s attempt to re-create Jimi’s legendary jam session with Cream comes off weirdly awkwardly, and a triumphant concert setpiece — in which the Experience dazzles the Beatles by cheekily covering “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” mere days after its release — seems to come from a different, far more conventional biopic. Obviously Ridley’s hands were tied by licensing considerations, but one almost wonders if the film — at its best when it veers most radically from formula — might have been better served taking the even more radical step of never showing any onstage performances at all.