John Ridley won the Academy Award in March for his screenplay of 12 Years a Slave. His latest subject is another misunderstood black man, Jimi Hendrix.
Directed and written by Ridley, Jimi: All Is By My Side portrays a year in the guitarist's life, from 1966 to 1967, when he was discovered by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) in New York clubs playing in blues bands under the name Jimmy James and then shipped over to London by manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), where he soon became the toast of the town.
Hendrix is played by OutKast's Andre Benjamin, an inspired choice who mimics the flamboyant musician's mannerisms, from the lilt in his voice to constantly picking at his skin to his groovy sense of humor, baby. He's a free spirit in the tumultuous '60s, and everyone wants a piece of him, especially Linda and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), who compete for his affections.
Ridley and his team pay terrific attention to period details. Jimi and Kathy are often seen shopping for clothes at hippie boutiques. There's proper English society being besieged by the coming counterculture. In one scene Hendrix is bullied by three Bobbies and told to take off his Army jacket, not knowing that he had actually been in the service back in the States. The subtext of that ugly stop is that they were a mixed couple.
Hendrix stayed out of racial politics. In another telling scene, Black Power ideologue Michael X (Adrian Lester) chides him for not having a message or standing up for his people, as they share a joint. Contrary to Michael X's wishes, Jimi surrounds himself with white musicians - Noel Redding (Oliver Bennett) and Mitch Mitchell (Tom Dunlea), his cohorts in The Experience. Jimi most wants to meet Eric Clapton (Danny McColgan), who was considered God in the British rock scene at the time. When he does, taking the stage to jam with Cream, the peeved Clapton retreats backstage and angrily asks Chandler, "Is he really that good?"
While LInda pines for Jimi, she's more of a platonic friend. He meets Kathy on his first day in London and they end up at her place immediately. This is where the story takes a questionable turn. It depicts Etchingham as a possessive shrew, who treats Hendrix as if he were her trophy. Most controversial is when one night at a club Jimi, in a jealous rage, beats her with a phone receiver. Bruised and battered, Kathy eventually overdoses on sleeping pills.
Well, the real Kathy Etchingham says it ain't so. In a review posted at her website last June, she called the film "a short-sighted and somewhat offensive portrayal of Jimi and those around him at the time." Kathy claims Jimi never hit her, and when she went public about her concerns "the filmmakers replied that it was true because they had 'thoroughly researched' me."
The other problem with the movie is the soundtrack, which works hard to approximate Hendrix's sound without playing any of his songs. Ridley wasn't allowed to use Jimi's original music. Cleverly, all the blues-rock sections of the film are played by Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar and Kenny Aronoff, who do a pretty good imitation of early Experience. There's a version of "Wild Thing" (Hendrix didn't write it) that's heard near the end. Ironically, the only well-known song Hendrix performs is "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at a show with Paul McCartney and George Harrison in the crowd.
Thanks to the earnest performance by Benjamin, Jimi: All Is By My Side holds together and makes you want to follow him to Monterey and Woodstock, the Fillmore East and the Isle of Wight. The film ends before his greatest triumphs. This is one piece of Jimi Hendrix's remarkable life, leaving room for more cinematic stories to be told about him in the future.