“It used to be commonplace that you’d get all of a person’s life into two hours. It was a buffet approach to storytelling,” says John Ridley, who recently won an Oscar for writing “12 Years a Slave.” He points to films like “42” and “Lincoln,” which focus on a specific part of famous people’s lives. “You can be more detailed, you can excavate more, you can tell more story.”
So it’s no surprise that Ridley’s Jimi Hendrix biopic, “Jimi: All is by My Side” — also his directorial debut — doesn’t feature big moments, like his performance at the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals, or his death, or even, thanks to rights issues, recordings of his songs. It stars Andre Benjamin as the musician, seen only in the year he spent in London, right as he was about to blow up. (It does feature a few famous moments, like when he and The Experience busted out a cover of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” two days after the album dropped, with The Beatles in attendance.)
Ridley spoke to Metro about the narrow focus, Hendrix’s view of racial politics and working around not using his most famous songs.
This is the kind of biopic that only covers a tiny slither of a legend’s life.
People look at any famous individual as an icon. We’re fans and we don’t want to dig very deeply. Stories get passed down and we assume they were the reality. Here I had an opportunity to get into things, like the scene with [civil rights activist] Michael X, where he has to deal with racial awareness, or spending time on the Eric Clapton scene. I could even dwell on moments like him sitting in the park and listening to the Salvation Army Band, which was something he did. That’s more satisfying than jumping from even to event to event as quickly as possible.
In a longer biopic, I don’t think you could spend eight minutes on a rich and hopefully nuanced scene where people discuss race and music and one’s place and expectations the way we were able to do, and get to know something about Jimi that’s beyond just the next song he’s playing. We get to see the way he looked at life and the way he looked at race relations.
The way the film is structured and even filmed, it almost views him as just a regular person. Not only do you learn the origins of certain things, but he often just seems to be hanging out in shots that don’t always put him at the center.
If you look at Jimi Hendrix on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1969 following the Woodstock performance — Cavett is introducing Hendrix to the larger portion of America, and showing the Monterey performance, where Hendrix was smashing a guitar and setting it on fire. But [on the show] Hendrix was subdued and laidback, which was his natural personality. Rather than have a film that was bombastic and showy, because that’s what people have seen Hendrix as, I wanted to have something that was more observant.
Some of the dialogue scenes have an unhurried, even “unwritten” quality, as though you’re just filming people having conversations. You even splice in sounds of other people talking during conversations.
In scenes in a club or a bar, you can’t always hear what everyone’s saying. At some point the important pieces of dialogue come to the fore. There were other places where it was about letting the actors converse and go on a bit, instead of having something that’s structured. We wanted to capture what it be like to be in the moment with these individuals. Over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really stellar filmmakers, and one thing I took from them is a style that is observant and in the moment. Some directors jump around instead of letting the audience experience things with the characters and the actors and their own natural chemistry, which I would say our actors had in boatloads.
One of the big scenes finds him conversing with Michael X, and they each take a different stance on being a race leader: Michael X believes in being a strong role model for his race while Hendrix wants to be a strong role model for everyone.
I didn’t want to choose a side in that scene. Hendrix is saying they’re all his people, and he liked that he could fuse blues and rock and folk and bring them all together. But the fact of the matter is people did come to him with expectations. He was one of those performers who was post-racial, for lack of a better phrase. He was a person color, so he had to deal with race in different ways than other people may have had to. I wanted to examine his Afrocentric side with the Michael X scene, or the moment when he’s accosted by the Bobbies. The Ida character is based on Devon Wilson, one of his girlfriends. She had different ways of connecting with Jimi because she was a person of color.
You were denied the rights to Hendrix’s songs, though you include covers like “Wild Thing” and “Sergeant Pepper,” plus other rarities. How did you find working around this issue?
People like Paul Greengrass and the Hughes Brothers tried to secure the rights to his music. If they couldn’t do it, I would be kidding myself to think there was something about my resume that would give me some entree that they did not get. I know there will be some who come out of this movie who will say, “Well, it didn’t have ‘Purple Haze,’ it didn’t have ‘All Along the Watchtower.” There’s nothing I can do about that. But I also believe a lot of people will come out who will be intrigued by the year in London and his relationship with Linda, or the scene with Michael X. There are aspects of this film that are informative and don’t chase after things that people already know. There are already movies that have done that. There are commercials that have done that. There are Vegas lounge performers who have done that. Are there any benefits to being the 45th person who’s done that? I don’t necessarily think so.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge