“Ah, yeah…just let it flow, baby.” (Jimi Hendrix voice)
A Hendrix biopic can be tackled in a variety of ways, but a director should either commit to gonzo audio/visual techniques or simply let the performances take over. John Ridley doesn’t commit either way in his feature debut, Jimi: All Is by My Side, which produces exceptional lead performances and disjointed effects.
André Benjamin (Outkast) stars as Hendrix, as Jimi: All Is by My Side explores the circumstances that led to his fame in 1966-1967. The opening scene bares a striking resemblance to one of Benjamin’s eight characters from the iconic 2003 music video “Hey Ya,” but despite the similarities, the 39-year-old’s seamlessly transforms into the psychedelic star. Director Ridley (writer of 12 Years a Slave) makes a smart decision by focusing the early scenes on the personal dynamic between Hendrix and Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), the girlfriend of The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and although Benjamin has remarkable on-screen presence, Poots steals the show as the two get to know each other. But just when the vibe gets groovy, Ridley serves up distracting chyron and awkward freeze frames to introduce supporting characters. Given the smooth flow of the dialogue, a simple dissolve would have done the trick, but the action completely stops. Just let it flow, baby! Why disrupt the Benjamin-Poots show?
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As Hendrix earns a few breaks and jets off to London, Jimi: All Is by My Side becomes a tale of two identities. One, Hendrix becomes increasingly confident in his skills and comes out of his shell, and two, director Ridley delivers outstanding scenes involving Poots but continues to pound away with dramatic sound design and aggravating editing. One will find a few poignant moments like when Keith attempts to break down Hendrix’s personal wall (“because I love you”) and when the singer calms himself before playing with Eric Clapton, but the follow-up scenes always seem to lack the honesty evoked by those with Benjamin and Poots.
There’s a moment when Hendrix finds himself under scrutiny for his “gimmicks” and refusal to play for “his people.” In other words, it’s a matter of the industry “wanting” Hendrix’s services rather than “letting” him do as he pleases. Technically speaking, Ridley gives off the impression that viewers “want” graphics and slick sound design, but he’s already got the goods, so to speak, in the music of Hendrix and the performance of Benjamin. Why clutter it up? The transitional breaks are too long, especially during the latter half of Jimi: All Is by My Side.
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Ridley doesn’t shy away from Hendrix’s violence towards women or his egotistical tendencies (“there’s nothing there for you”) but then again, little is revealed about Hendrix’s life up to 1966. With all the intercut stock footage and breaks from the narrative, maybe a few glimpses into the past would have done some good.
Ruth Negga and Hayley Atwell both deliver standout performances as Hendrix’s love interests, but it’s disconcerting to learn about the negative reactions to Jimi: All Is by My Side from the people who knew the real man. Ridley sheds a rather dark light on the personal life of Hendrix while focusing on style over substance.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.