Review: Jimi: All is By My Side
PLOT: A look at a seminal year in the life of Jimi Hendrix. From 1966 to 1967, Hendrix spent the year in London honing his craft, falling in love and paving the way for his rise as the greatest guitarist the world has ever known.
REVIEW: JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE is a very curious biopic indeed. A film about the magnetic musician Jimi Hendrix at a crucial point in his life, director John Ridley eschews the familiar trappings of its genre in order to focus on just one year of the guitarist's life. No need to watch him grow up, become famous, die; Ridley has committed to giving us an inside view of the turning point in Hendrix's life, when he went from really good guitar player to musical god.
Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 of Outkast fame) plays Hendrix, and more perfect casting could not be asked for. Not only does he have the look down, he's got the attitude; Hendrix was quiet bordering on shy, but also effortlessly charismatic, and Benjamin slips into the role like its a well worn suit. He can act, too, and it's a good thing because he's asked to give a complex yet borderline minimalist performance that would challenge any pro. Ridley's film is unusual in that it doesn't give us countless scenes of Hendrix playing his instrument, which likely would have been an easy assignment for Benjamin; the film instead focuses on his relationships, in particular how he relates to, and is changed by, two very important women in his life. The most surprising thing then, about JIMI, is that it's actually more about these women and their impact on Hendrix's life than it is about the man himself.
The first woman is Linda Keith (played by an impossibly adorable Imogen Poots), who discovers Hendrix in a pub as he plays backup guitar in a band and instantly recognizes his potential. A model best known for being Keith Richards' much younger girlfriend, Linda comes from a well-off family but has the rebellious spirit of a rock star herself, and with Jimi sees a chance to do more than just be known as a "groupie." There's an immediate affection between Jimi and Linda, but the movie carefully keeps us in the dark on whether or not it actually becomes romantic. Whether or not they're lovers, it's clear they love one another, and Linda provides him with two very meaningful gifts: the first is a guitar (belonging to Richards!), and the second is an introduction to Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley, very good), the bassist for The Animals who, seeing the end of that era fast approaching, wants to focus on being a manager for talented musicians. Like Linda, Chas only needs a few minutes of listening to Jimi play to be convinced he's in the presence of greatness.
The second woman Jimi meets is Kathy Etchingham, played incredibly well by Hayley Atwell. Jimi has been whisked away to London by Chas because his particular sound, a mix of rock, blues and jazz, will likely be accepted overseas quicker than it would in the states, and one of the first people he meets is Kathy, who is transfixed by his talent and his easygoing vibe. While Linda still hovers on the sidelines, emanating jealousy, Kathy swoops right in and attaches herself to Jimi, who in turn is all too happy to accept her advances. Kathy quickly becomes a fixture in Jimi's life, and as his star rises, her possessiveness and vulnerability become more transparent, and the result is what looks to be an abusive relationship. (Jimi's temper and arrogance are not whitewashed by Ridley.)
It's the women who pop off the screen in Ridley's film, though Benjamin is, as mentioned, incredibly well cast as the soft-spoken Hendrix. Both Linda and Kathy exude more desire and intensity than Jimi; the movie appears to posit that he would have been content to slum it had he not been involved with them. Poots, with her doe eyes and slinky mannerisms is hypnotic, while Atwell is no less than stunning in her best performance yet; Kathy is vulnerable and insecure, yet is afflicted with that unfortunate need to be with a man who treats her badly, and Atwell sells it every step of the way.
Ridley's film subverts your expectations early on, establishing a fractured, almost meditative atmosphere instead of plunging into the rollicking rock-and-roll tempo you'd expect. JIMI is a quiet, intimate portrait more suited for art houses than bringing down the house. It's also borderline experimental; it will cut out of scenes with no warning, stock footage drifts in and out dreamily, the sound drops out frequently, leaving us to sit in uncomfortable silence. Anyone thinking they'll be getting sequence after sequence of Hendrix wailing on a stratocaster will walk away wanting, although we are treated to one electric performance: Hendrix, right on the verge of superstardom, plays a rendition of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" for an enraptured audience, including Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Benjamin's mimicry of Hendrix in this sequence is particularly impressive; the absolute joy Hendrix took in doing this (it seemed a dicey proposition to cover the Beatles right in front of their faces) is palpable.
While it has the performances and intriguing mood down, JIMI is still not quite a success. The fractured storytelling is compelling up until a point, and there's a nagging sense that we still don't know much about Hendrix when it's all over. We've seen a crucial year in his life, but we can't quite wrap our heads around his genius or his passion (quite often, Hendrix appears to be rather passive about his own career). I admire what Ridley has done here, especially considering he wasn't able to get the actual rights to Hendrix's music, but the overall result is just that: admirable.
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