Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time. I remember the first time I bought a Hendrix album back during a summer home from college working at the now defunct Ames in South Portland, ME. I had just started to get into music beyond just what I heard on the local modern rock station (WCYY) and bought the “Are You Experienced” CD (along with “The Very Best of Cream” CD). Of course, I knew of Hendrix and knew “Purple Haze” and his iconic “Star-Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock, but none of that prepared me for listening to that album the first time. I had no idea, for instance, that Hendrix sang “Fire.” I was pretty naïve about music at the time. Experiencing “Are You Experienced” was a revelation. The best way I can describe it that it had a timeless quality to it. A lot of music feels period-specific, even the great ones, but there was something about it that made it sound like it belonged as much in 2000 as it did when it was made back in 1967. I’d like to think that Hendrix has a similar, revelatory impact on anyone who listens to him for the first time.
All of that is a long way of saying that I was interested when I heard there was a biopic being made about Jimi Hendrix and was very curious to see how they would pull it off when I heard that they did not have permission from his estate to use any of his music for the film. How do you make a film about the greatest guitarist ever if you can’t use any of his music? What is the point?
Jimi: All Is By My Side takes place in the months leading up to Jimi’s iconic performance at the Monterey Music Festival in the summer of 1967 and prior to the U.S. release of Are You Experienced. We meet Jimi Hendrix (Andre Benjamin, a.k.a. Andre 3000) as Jimmy James playing backup guitar for Curtis Knight and the Squires in 1966 New York City. Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), who at the time was the girlfriend of Keith Richards, walks into the mostly empty bar they are playing in and “discovers” Hendrix. Through her, Hendrix is introduced to Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley) of The Animals, who convinces him to leave for London and start recording. His first night in London he meets Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), who would become his girlfriend. The film chronicles the formation of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Jimi’s life in London on the cusp of the greatness he would achieve, and the ups and downs of his relationship with Etchingham.
Surprisingly, the film manages to pull off the fact that it does not have access to the Hendrix music catalog by placing it in the period prior to the U.S. release of Are You Experienced. Director John Ridley, who won an Academy Award for the Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, successfully shifts the focus from the music to the man and the influences behind the music he would unleash. Hendrix is shown playing a lot of other people’s music in London clubs. While is he is heavily influenced by classic blues, one scene shows him changing his hairstyle to reflect Bob Dylan’s on the cover of Blonde on Blonde. All of this is a mostly effective work-around the lack of Hendrix songs. A scene where Hendrix and Chandler discussing why he hasn’t charted in the United States even though he has three hit singles in the U.K. works as an illuminating framing device for the film, as it gives the feeling of living in a pre-Hendrix world.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else being better suited for the role than Andre Benjamin, a highly talented musical artist who gives a very good performance as Jimi Hendrix. The film treats his talent with awe and the man with honesty, not shying away from some of the difficult aspects of his character. There is some unsettling domestic violence between him and Etchingham that the film shows unflinchingly. The film also conveys the sheer brilliance of his guitar playing and the audacity of the man, particularly in the two scenes where he asks to get up on stage and jam with Eric Clapton and the members of Cream and a climactic scene involving a performance where two members of The Beatles were in attendance.
At the very least, this biopic serves to give a brief glimpse of the man behind the legend and behind the tremendous artistic talent. At best, it could serve as an entry point into the music of Hendrix and be an appetizer to whet the appetite for the main course that was to come. It would have been better if they had actual Hendrix songs, but if you have any familiarity with the artist it shows you the ingredients that went into the making what he became.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars