The words "new", "fresh" and "experimental" are used to talk about the biopic genre about as often as the words "fun for the whole family" are used to describe a strip club. Most films about famous musicians play like following a not-very-good band on tour across the United States: The venues may change and some small details might switch, but the moves, the setlist and the designed highs and lows are all the same.
So props to "Jimi: All Is By My Side," last night's centerpiece presentation for the Milwaukee Film Festival, for making a biopic that departs from the exhausted formula and does so successfully (unlike this summer’s noble failure "Get On Up").
Gone is the sprawling decades-long look at a life that plays more like hitting the big Wikipedia bulletpoints. Gone are the attempts to solve or explain a genius. Gone – for the most part – are the traditional arcs, from fame to the price of fame and back again. Even the greatest hits are missing in action, for reasons both artistic and legal (the Hendrix estate didn’t allow the film to use any of his hits). What remains feels like a truly unique portrait and perspective of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest icons, one untethered to the clichés of stories past and one that attempts to put some art back into the artist biopic.
Instead of the "close my eyes and envision my entire life before a show" tactic (as made famous by the too-brilliant-for-its-time "Walk Hard"), "Jimi" sets its focus on a brief segment in Hendrix’s life, namely between 1966 and 1967 when he left the U.S. for London and began making a name for himself.
Early on, Hendrix (Andre Benjamin, the artist formerly known as Andre 3000) is playing backing guitars in dingy New York nightclubs when he’s discovered by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots). Amazed by the potential on stage – and personally desperate to get out for the shadow of being Keith Richards’ girlfriend – she takes the impressive young guitarist under her wing in the hopes of guiding him to superstardom. Hendrix, however, isn’t the most agreeable apprentice, with no real taste or interest in the business side of making music.
Even though he takes performing advice a bit like a petulant child – changing the topic, refusing to make eye contact – he’s just too talented to be ignored. Eventually, one of Linda’s friends – Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), formerly of The Animals and now looking to manage – hears his mind-boggling skill and brings him out to London to get his career going.
There, he becomes a star – Clapton even quits a jam session with Jimi just because he’s just too damn good – and even manages to bag a gig at the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. He just has to maintain his popularity and reputation, a task easier said than done for Hendrix. He spends shows endlessly tuning his guitar or generally acting disinterested, frustrating Chandler and his bandmates in the process.
His personal life is no less tumultuous, coping with race and identity while falling into a relationship with the brash music outsider Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell) that emotionally wounds Linda in the beginning and physically wounds Kathy by the end.
Always a charismatic performer throughout his career in music and movies, Benjamin disappears into the showcase role. He looks like the rock legend and aces the floating musical cadence of his voice, but it’s no mere imitation. He – along with writer-director John Ridley – dig into the performer and the person that was Hendrix.
On the stage, even for those wishing to hear the hits, it’s a fitting rush watching a great performer perform as a fellow great performer, smiling as his fingers fly down the frets, the music evolving and transforming in his hands. Off the stage, he’s a laidback enigma, a human force of nature blowing in whatever direction he particularly sees fit, seemingly unaware of his awe-inspiring power. He has his strong beliefs about music, about life and, in one really great conversation with Michael X, about race; everything else to him is Teflon, rolling right off of him.
Jimi may get his name in the title, but much of "All Is By My Side" takes the perspective of the women in his life. For almost the first third, the movie actually belongs to Linda, equal parts fawning over his groundbreaking musical talent and frustratedly trying to pull it into the spotlight it deserves. It’s Poots, however, who earns the spotlight. Even in dreck, she’s a remarkably easy screen presence; as it turns out, with good material, she’s just as easy. She brightens up the movie whenever she’s on screen, especially when she’s sparking off with Benjamin, with a whole world of conflicted emotions tepidly creeping onto her character’s posh exterior.
Atwell is strong as well playing Hendrix’s Brit girlfriend Etchingham, who starts off brash but soon becomes bruised by life with a rocker – especially one as sometimes impenetrable and sulky as Hendrix.
Her section of the story, however, is where "All Is By My Side" gets in a bit of hot water, namely with a jarring scene where an enraged Jimi beats Kathy with a pay phone, a violent outburst in a tempestuous relationship. According to friends and Etchingham herself, the sequence is a work of fiction. The actual problem isn't the truth of the matter; it's that it doesn’t seem to fit with the movie or the character it’s creating. As written and performed, Jimi is such a modest, unassuming figure that a moment of such brutality feels out of place, a cheap story beat summoned from a less interesting, more conventional biopic.
It’s a rare moment of cliché and falsity in Ridley’s film, which for the most part feels so true. Making his directorial debut, Ridley captures the feel and the energy of both his time period and his performer. Thanks to the grainy film stock look and jumpy editing, the movie has a musty club vibe and a raw fervor that matches Hendrix’s new sound exploding to life.
The sound design in particular helps capture the story and Jimi’s world. Club sequences roar, drowning out and overlapping dialogue between characters until it fades into focus – for instance, when Jimi and Kathy first meet, showing the connection forged in the chaos.
Early on, instead of the typical flashing lights and wavering cameras, a drug trip is simply hinted at with sharp edits and disjointed conversations colliding into, together and on top of one another. Even a simple moment like a gig where the sound and clutter fade away, leaving just the sound of fingers plunking against a fret, carries meaning – for Jimi, it’s just the music – and an unconventionally captivating attempt to get at the truth of a man and an experience.
Sometimes, Ridley’s direction gets to be a bit much, such as cutting in clips of old performances of The Animals simply to explain who The Animals are or flashing in old photographs to overelaborate on elements. But it’s all worth it for a moment when The Jimi Hendrix Experience plays a raw quickly assembled cover of "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" – in front of The Beatles, three days after the album’s release no less. The sound design pushing the crowd and the music, the gritty film, the ecstatic joy on Benjamin and the band’s faces and the choppy editing mix to make the audience feel like a fly on the wall, witnessing the birth of a new sound in all of its enthralling glory.
Yes, "All Is By My Side" stumbles a little bit. There’s the aforementioned overdirection and out-of-place violence, and Jimi sometimes feels like a meandering passenger in a movie that bears his name, what with the focus spread between him and the women in his life, as well as his vibe as though the world is sometimes on mute (it’s a credit to Benjamin that he makes a man, so perpetually out of it, still engaging).
Still, it’s a refreshing thrill to see a film attempt – and more often than not succeed – to inject new life to an artist’s story. Unconventional, one of a kind musical legends deserve unconventional, one of a kind stories, not another trip to the Creative Genius cookie-cutter.
"Jimi: All Is By My Side": ***
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.