The Screen Cries Jimi: ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Cinema
John Ridley has followed up his 2014 Oscar-winning screenplay for 12 Years a Slave by writing and directing a must-see Jimi Hendrix (rapper André Benjamin, aka André 3000) biopic, one of LA Film Festival’s most highly enjoyable movies. As is befitting the screenwriter of Solomon Northup’s slavery saga, Ridley exposes how racism — among other things — affected and afflicted the virtuoso guitarist in Jimi: All is by My Side.
The feature follows Hendrix from the time he is plucked from obscurity while performing backup in New York clubs and recording studios and brought to London, where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and his astounding talent earns him the recognition Hendrix so richly deserved. The “plucker” from obscurity is Linda Keith (British actress Imogen Poots, who appeared in 2011’s Jane Eyre and Fright Night — how’s that for acting range?), who is Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (Ashley Charles, in one of the film’s numerous cameos portraying the era’s hottest rockers) “groupie” — uh, I mean girlfriend. This mod London lass is sort of “slumming” across the pond while the Stones are on tour when she stumbles upon Hendrix at Manhattan dives. Believing in his talent Linda takes Hendrix under her wing and introduces him to Chas Chandler (amiably, ably played by Andrew Buckley), The Animals’ bassist who is in the process of leaving that group to become a manager of rock acts.
The subtle depiction of Hendrix, full of nuance, by André Benjamin — who, offscreen, is half of the hip-hop duo OutKast — is nothing short of uncanny. (Can you say “Oscar nomination”?) He perfectly looks and acts the part. Benjamin’s delivery of a single line regarding Hendrix’s mother reveals much about what troubles him and his attitude towards women. A phone call to his father likewise provides insight into Hendrix’s back story. All this helps explain his turbulent relationship with English groupie Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell, who appeared in a Captain America pic), and why Linda remained the Foxy Lady who got away. Mr. “Peacey Lovey” had his inner demons and this “Voodoo Child” didn’t always practice the cosmic consciousness he preached. As noted, Ridley’s script also reveals the prejudice that confronted Hendrix in the U.K., where he falls in with Black nationalists through Ida (Irish-born actress Ruth Negga, who was in 2013’s World War Z and plays Raina in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series) and the wannabe Malcolm, Michael X.
The film is a sheer pleasure for Hendrix fans to watch as his talent ascends. A particularly enjoyable sequence is when the still unknown Hendrix guests with the Cream at a London gig and Eric Clapton (Danny McColgan) — whom graffiti proclaims to be, but of course, “god” — storms off the stage, as Ginger Baker continues to pound the sharkskins and Jack Bruce wails on. In a delightfully revealing backstage scene sure to give Hendrix fans the proverbial smile of the day, Clapton discloses why he deserted the stage, mid-performance.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers were reportedly unable to secure the rights to some of Hendrix’s greatest hits. Nevertheless, with Jimi: All is by My Side John Ridley reveals himself to be a true auteur, as talented a director as he is a screenwriter and novelist. This groovy movie perfectly captures that ’60s scene with a cinema verite documentary-like, fly on the wall flair.
In addition to being a pure delight in the tradition of works about struggling Bohemian artistes (paging La Boheme!), along with the Simon Bolivar biopic The Liberator and Dear White People, which LA Film Festival also screened, as well as the upcoming Civil Rights drama Selma, Jimi continues the cinematic surge of Black-themed movies that 12 Years a Slave has helped to spearhead.
Hey John, where you going with that camera in your hand? Right on! Even if you have to go through “crosstown traffic,” don’t miss Jimi when it opens.