‘Jimi: All is by My Side’
Director: John Ridley
Stars: Andre Benjamin, Imogen Poots
3 (out of 5) Globes
“30 Rock” got a lot of mileage out of a running gag in which Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) was making a Janis Joplin biopic so besieged by troubles and rights issues that it eventually bore no resemblance to the rocker herself. “Jimi: All is by My Side,” which stars Andre Benjamin as Hendrix, can sound like the same thing. As they’ve done to Paul Greengrass as the Hughes Brothers, the Hendrix estate denied the production use of the musician’s songs. It’s already a small picture anyway, not the splashy, career-spanning Great Man biopic that goes to any best-selling artist. (All he’s received is a cheesy TV movie from 2000 starring Wood Harris.)
But this isn’t a cheap cash-in biopic. It’s another, better kind: the type, like “Topsy-Turvy,” that focuses on a narrow slither of its subject’s life, spending time and effort to get one chapter right rather than get the whole story wrong. It’s not been made by some desperate exploitation artist, looking to pilfer from the Hendrix cottage industry, but by John Ridley, the novelist and screenwriter, who recently nabbed on Oscar for writing “12 Years a Slave.” He finds a way to avoid blasting “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe” every three minutes even if he could: It’s all about the year Hendrix spent in London, right before he blew up, when he was still figuring out his style, or letting others figure it out for him.
In fact, Benjamin’s Jimi isn’t an untouchable icon; he’s more often treated like just some guy who happens to be unimaginably talented and will change the world before decaying into a mythic martyr. He’s still Jimmy James, a moody blues artist who doesn’t like to sing, when he’s spotted in a club by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), best known as a serial girlfriend or object of obsession for the likes of Keith Richards. She inspires him to pick his hair out more, dress weirder and add vocals to his act, as well as to hop across the Atlantic, where he may have a better chance of appealing to predominantly white audiences.
There’s not a clean story to Ridley’s telling; all Hendrix does is start off obscure and get less so. Ridley embraces this lack of a driving narrative. Most of its scenes simply hang out, and not always with Hendrix. Despite Ridley being a writer making his directorial debut, his film is more directed than written. In fact, much of it tries to feel unwritten; conversations play out unhurriedly and even at great length. Some have real purpose. Perhaps the biggest scene finds Hendrix meeting Black Power activist Michael X, who thinks Hendrix should use his music to speak to his people; Hendrix disagrees, arguing that the real way to change is bringing everyone together. Ridley doesn’t take a side in this scene, but lets the nuances and faults of each one shine through.
But most of the scenes have no real purpose. They’re intended as you-are-there experiments in seeing if you can spot the rock icon milling about in shots that sometimes never move from their fixed position. Hendrix is sometimes not even the focus of scenes, as though he was a supporting or cameo player in the film ostensibly about him. For a dazzling musician and performer, Benjamin has a curious ability to disappear onscreen when he’s not overtly enthusiastic. (In “Idlewild” he was upstaged by the boy playing him in flashbacks.) It’s bizarre that a magnetic personality doesn’t always have screen presence, but it works here. Hendrix was a moody personality: electric when wielding a guitar, sullen when not. Benjamin, when he made this, may have been almost 15 years older than Hendrix ever was, but not only does he look eerily like him, he has the same quality of fading into the background when he doesn’t want to devour the fore. (Benjamin has some trouble sounding like him. His singing voice is too high for Hendrix’s booming baritone, and he lets a touch too much of his Atlanta-bred accent seep into the Seattle-born Hendrix’s drawl. He fares better approximating his sing-songy, drawn-out patois.)
Ridley’s approach is novel, but the execution can sometimes be frustrating. A stretch where Hendrix turns abusive towards one gal pal (Hayley Atwell) is both a rocker movie cliche and has even been debunked by the gal pal in question. And it can be too open too; when it ends it feels random, as though it required just a little bit more of a shape. But this is the kind of experimental narrative confident enough to let its most interesting character — Linda Keith, played by the film’s best actor — drift in and out of the story, her impact felt even more by her absence. It embraces imperfection and doesn’t try to fill in all the gaps of knowledge, instead segueing from idea to idea, all while making it feel like life is happening in front of the lens.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge