SXSW 2014: Jimi: All is by My Side
Review by Daniel Rester
It’s about time a feature film biopic about legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix has arrived. It comes in the form of Jimi: All is by My Side, written and directed by John Ridley. Ridley just picked up an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (2013). He now continues his success with Side, a film with a real love of rock & roll in its veins.
Side is a curious biopic, a film that only tells a piece of Hendrix’s story. Ridley focuses on Hendrix’s pre-fame, going over a year in his life from 1966 to 1967. The film also doesn’t feature any of the artist’s famous songs. That’s right, no “Hey Joe,” no “Purple Haze,” no “The Wind Cries Mary.” Ridley faced this roadblock during pre-production and production, with certain circumstances not allowing him to use the music. While these things are big flaws in ways, Ridley and his team save the film in other ways – starting with the acting.
The film stars Andre Benjamin, of OutKast fame, as Hendrix. The rapper-turned-actor is 38, whereas Hendrix was 27 when he died. This is another strange thing with the movie, yet Benjamin still gives a great performance for the most part. He transforms himself into Hendrix in ways, nailing the interesting facial expressions the guitarist would make while performing. He also gets the voice and soulfulness of the rocker down. Yet there is always an oddness to the performance. Perhaps it is because Benjamin is only given so much to do with the limited character exploration; the script doesn’t get too deep into Hendrix’s past or thoughts.
Benjamin is strong here, but he is outshined at times by two female costars: Imogen Poots and Hayley Atwell. Poots scene-steals as Linda Keith, a Vogue model who helped discover Hendrix while he was relatively unknown – playing in Jimi James and the Blue Flames in New York City. The actress gives magnetism and determination to the character, a woman who was dating Keith Richards at the times of meeting Hendrix. Atwell plays Kathy Etchingham, a girlfriend of Hendrix’s during the period in the film. Atwell is quite lovely as Etchingham, yet she also has fierceness to her behind those glowing eyes.
While Benjamin, Poots, and Atwell lead the film, Side also features many other actors portraying famous faces. We get Ashley Charles as Richards and Danny McColgan as Eric Clapton, among many others. One of the more important side characters, though, is Chas Chandler, played here by Andrew Buckley. Chandler, who was a bassist for The Animals, fits into the story by helping Keith get Hendrix noticed – and eventually managing Hendrix himself. Buckley plays Chandler with charm.
Ridley puts spirit into Side and paints a mostly-believable portrait of the 1960s rock scene in London (where Hendrix was most of the time during 1966-67); the production design by Paul Cross is excellent, with the costumes by Leonie Prendergast being particularly colorful and detailed. Ridley also delivers a feeling of spontaneity into the work that seems different than that of usual biopics, which is quite refreshing. He also isn’t afraid of presenting Hendrix as a flawed man, showing how the artist could become frustrated at times with his work and relationships. All of these aspects are aided by scenes containing terrific music, including Hendrix covering The Beatle’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Some of the film’s form has issues, though, as the final product feels a bit like a working print. With abrupt cuts in music, jumpy editing that includes needless insertions of old images and footage, and random fading to black, the film feels a bit all over the place at times. While the movie certainly has an overall flow, these aspects make it a little messier than it should be.
Ridley mentioned at the SXSW screening I attended that this was a big passion project for him. This certainly shows on the screen, yet Side just feels awkward in ways at the same time. Perhaps this is because of the film editing, or the lack of Hendrix music, or the age difference of Hendrix and Benjamin, or something else. I can’t quite pinpoint it. Even so, Side is an entertaining and informative biopic that doesn’t go the straightforward route. It also features fine production elements and dedicated performances. I admired those things about it.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+)
MPAA Rating: N/A.
Runtime: 1 hour and 58 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: N/A.
WeLiveFilm Press Photos of Jimi: All is by My Side:
The front of The Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas; photo by Daniel Rester.