For all of the apparently hackneyed conventions of the biopic genre, writer/director John Ridley (whose screenwriting chops won him a 2014 Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave) proves that sometimes those conventions may be necessary. His Jimi Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side, toys with style and aesthetic to serve up an engaging film that emulates the free-spirited, dynamic and spontaneous ethos of the legendary musician himself. Nevertheless, Hendrix (OutKast’s André Benjamin) remains an enigmatic figure whose inner self, his private self, is not always explored beyond, “Just let me play my music, man.”
Ridley opts to cover the ground of the year leading up to the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s now iconic performance at Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. It is an apt and intriguing choice, where there might otherwise be a temptation to show the culmination of Hendrix’s meteoric rise to the top. So then: what we do see is his first proper discovery by Linda Keith (the one-time girlfriend of that Keith Richards, played by Imogen Poots) at New York City’s Cheetah Club in 1966, through to the formation of his band under manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and several key performances that would guarantee their fame and success, but primarily that of Hendrix. A large portion of the film is also devoted to examination of Hendrix’s relationships with various women, including Keith and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell).1
Subsequently, at the crux of the film lies an intention to depict the private and personal side to the mythical Hendrix. He is in his chrysalis, emerging to become one of the greatest guitarists on record in what will be a brief yet formidable four-year musical career. Ridley seeks to show this by subverting several conventions (that of the biopic and otherwise) to lend the film a flow and free-spirited atmosphere that mirrors Hendrix himself. Appropriately then, the film’s sound design is often chaotic: in one scene, the sheer franticness of Hendrix’s guitar playing on stage is reduced to a surreal minimalist pluck of strings. In others, a dismissal of Hollywood continuity: lines of dialogue overlap from cut to cut, giving a more authentic feel to the rhythm and emotion of exchanges between characters. This experimentation with form extends to the visuals as well: jump cuts, freeze-frame titles and archival footage. Throw them together and Jimi: All Is by My Side is not your average biopic, with an average method of storytelling. For the most part, it befits the dynamic realm in which Jimi Hendrix would have operated.2 We know Hendrix’s world, or we get a feel for it at least.
What we do not know, even at the film’s close, is whom Hendrix might have been as a musical figure in relation to his private self. His character is refracted through the perceptions of others who view him (his girlfriends, his band-mates, his professional contacts), and only a vague (dare I say, hazy) understanding of Hendrix comes to pass. There is no real ray of light deflected through a prism to witness a rainbow. While he is ascending to the top, about to make it big, his thoughts and ambitions remain a secret. Notably, a few choice moments do touch on Hendrix’s innate personality, including a cheeky moment when Hendrix coaxes his band-mates to learn “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band“ just before they go onstage at the Saville Theatre, where the Beatles are in attendance. These moments often seek to communicate Hendrix and what he was ‘about’ through a tactile cinematic experience, one so immersive you feel yourself transported to the very time and place of the scene. When Hendrix, bathed in golden light onstage, is glimpsed in the background from between fuzzy silhouetted audience members in a layered misé-en-scene, we are there with those audience members gazing up at the soon-to-be legend. Yet, there is an inconsistency in the abstract representation of Hendrix that Ridley creates, rather than adopting a more straightforward dramatic narrative approach typical of biopics. Perhaps a further detraction from the film is the absence of Hendrix classics – “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Foxy Lady, “Purple Haze”, and so on – as part of the musical soundtrack, in missing permission from Hendrix’s estate.
Ultimately, Jimi: All Is by My Side is an audacious and valuable experimental biopic which proves ineffectual at times in attempting to abstractly reveal the subject as both a person and musical figure, at the most crucial point in his career, beyond his refusal for his existence to be constrained by labels or dictated by others.