Director: John Ridley
Darko Entertainment/Freeman Film/Subotica Entertainment
This Jimi Hendrix biopic – that isn’t really a biopic, aiming rather to be a portrait of the year leading up to Hendrix becoming a superstar – isn’t so much “based on a true story” (as it tells us before its opening frame) as it is more likely based on a tweet about the graphic novel version of the unauthorised bio of the nearly-true story. Featuring Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) of Outkast in the Jimi role – despite being a decade older than the Hendrix he’s playing – the film, actually, isn’t really about Hendrix all that much. It’s more about Benjamin, and it’s more about the women in Jimi’s life. Though they’re all thin sketches, occasionally stretched out to caricature – same for the Hendrix that’s on display too; we do get the drifter, stoner, impressionable space-cowboy vibe. Just a bit. We get none of the motivations around that, and almost no energy. Not necessarily because Benjamin is struggling – though he’s not in any way a gifted actor. It’s a script that’s lifeless and dull – bought to you in much the same plodding fashion as the script to 12 Years A Slave. Here that writer has turned director – though he’s likely taken style ideas from another turkey he penned: Undercover Brother.
All Is By My Side sweeps us up into the world where Linda Keith – girlfriend of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones – sees a pre-fame Jimi playing to almost no one as a sideman in a club in New York. She introduces him to Chas Chandler of The Animals who persuades Hendrix to make the leap to London. We’re in London within the first half-hour of the film. We’ve heard no music – none of Jimi’s was allowed in the film, so clearly that was the major hurdle for writer/director John Ridley. It becomes a major hurdle for the version of Jimi that Benjamin tries to play. And it certainly means the film just ambles along – ponderous and pointless actually.
Quite what this nearly impressionistic version of events is meant to tell us is not clear. But the back half of this movie – given it’s only dealing with a few months – moves so slowly, is so painful. It becomes a series of vignettes only vaguely stitched together. We have Hendrix jamming with Cream, Clapton doing a walk-off. We have him performing Sgt Peppers’ title track within a couple of days of its release – to an audience that featured The Beatles. We have all these boxes ticked and yet none of it feels true – or even good. None of it means anything.
Jimi: All Is By My Side is a bit like Beatles biopics Backbeat and, more recently, Nowhere Boy. There’s a kid-gloves treatment to the myth – and in the end the very process of never wanting to harm the story is precisely what harms it. These sorts of films are made by fans with best intentions but they’re so in awe of the idea of making the film and so precious about the fact that they’re dealing with pop-culture zeitgeist moments – or in fact the build-up to them – that they play it so safe as to eventually become very heavy-handed. Sadder, there’s just no spark. That these great musicians and this great music could inspire something so turgid is the great shame.
This Jimi biopic is a rare beast though – it’s utterly ridiculous, moving eventually toward being torturous and yet, somehow, it’s strangely watchable. Perhaps that’s the car-crash aspect. Perhaps it’s with a hope that some idea is going to come out of it. But no. This film doesn’t give its characters a chance. They’re too busy being hurtled toward the next mild moment in music history. The anoraks already know it (and the actual version, not this staged, Chinese Whispers version) – the fair-weather fans, owners of only a Jimi Hendrix best-of say, might well lap this short of shit up since, cleverly, it’s being disguised as art by virtue of its inclusion in the upcoming New Zealand International Film Festival.
And that makes me both sad and angry. Which is more than the film did, really. All the film did was bore me. Here was one musician I really love (Andre 3000) playing another I really love (Jimi Hendrix) and it was like two deaths, just a handful of people at the funeral. And no decent music with which to send them off.