Monday May 19, 2014
Movie Review: Jimi: All Is By My Side (2014)
John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” a biopic of Jimi Hendrix starring André (3000) Benjamin, is a bit like touring with a rock band: You get flashes of electricity and excitement amid long stretches of tedium.
The movie gives us the life and times of Jimi Hendrix in the year before he broke at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. That alone got me interested. A biopic that’s not the whole life? That’s not this reductive childhood scene, and that reductive teenage scene, and then the long slow rise leading to the burst of fame and recognition? Ah, but then the problems. Drugs? Exhaustion? Family strife? All of the above? The fall from grace. But then the speech! The resurrection! The return! And the final concert scene. And the star ascendant in his or her glory.
Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” has created a movie that is of its time in form as well as content. He uses the cinematic tricks of the New Wave, ascendant in ’66, to tell Jimi’s story: quick cuts and overlapping dialogue and silent flashbacks creeping bit by bit into a character’s consciousness. It gets in the way, to be honest. I became overly conscious of it. Ridley kept jolting me out of the story to tell me he was telling me a story.
And what is the story anyway?
In 1966, Jimi Hendrix, with Ike Turner bangs, is backing King Curtis at the Cheetah Club in New York when Keith Richards’ model girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) sees him and is stunned. Backstage, they talk and listen to music: Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan. She talks anyway, he barely says a thing. When he does, it’s about Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” Not the music but the album cover. “I dig his hair,” he says. So he lets his own go. He develops that Jimi frizz.
Is he talented? The Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (Robbie Jarvis) is unimpressed. “He’s nothing,” he tells Linda. “He’s rubbish.” But Chas Chandler, bassist for the Animals, sees Jimi and his jaw drops. Is this because Chas knows something Andrew doesn’t? Or because Jimi is a volatile artist who is dull one night and brilliant the next? I assumed the latter. After he blows it with Oldham, for example, Keith chastises him like a mother: “I am asking you to go up there and take the stage like you actually want to amount to something!” But Jimi doesn’t seem to get it.
Does he? Most of the movie takes place in Swingin’ London in ’66 and ’67, as a band is put together and Jimi trades one white groupie for another—Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a volatile redhead—but throughout he’s a man more acted upon than acting. White people see things in him and push him on stage even as he seems comfortable within his own cloudy thoughts. It’s less “Are you experienced?” than “Are you driven?” He has drive, of course, it’s just understated. He wants to meet Clapton, then he wants to play with Clapton, then he blows a condescending Clapton off the stage. For a show at the Saville Theater, with Paul McCartney and George Harrison in attendance, he opens with the just released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and kills it. He’s telling the best of British rock: I’m here. Make room or get out of the way.
These scenes, and the confrontation with British Nation of Islam leader Michael X that dissolves amid Jimi’s good vibes, are the best part of the movie. But if you want to hear Hendrix’s music you’ve got to wait until you get home. His estate refused to license it without script approval, which Ridley refused to give. So there’s no “Foxy Lady,” “Fire,” or “Purple Haze.” We never make it to Monterey, either, just back to the San Francisco airport. To be honest, the movie ends well for ending suddenly; for ending not on a high note but a grace note. “You have an annoying way of being quite simply profound,” Etchingham tells him.
Haze, purple or otherwise
Benjamin, by the way, is stunning in the lead. He’s got it all down: the languid, sexy charm onstage, the amused, mumbled voice offstage; the gum-chewing cool that John Lennon appropriated for the “All You Need is Love” video. There’s also a shattering moment when he beats up Etchingham with a phone. It’s one of the better portrayals of a rock star I’ve seen.
But the movie suffers from the same problem as Hendrix: a lack of drive. It’s cinéma vérité stuff: this, then this, then this. Most of the conversations aren’t profound, simply or otherwise, and far too much screentime is devoted to his relationship with Etchingham, which is dull business. Ridley seems to want to explore the enigma that is Jimi Hendrix but Hendrix keeps eluding him with a smile.