Home Video Hovel: Jimi: All Is by My Side, by Aaron Pinkston
2014 has been a surprisingly good year for biopics. Yes, we have the typical awards hungry vanity projects, but there are also films like Mr. Turner, Selma, and even Get On Up, which have actively pushed the boundaries of biographical storytelling. Perhaps filmmakers are realizing en masse that the art of the biopic has become increasingly stale but not completely gone. Lost in the shuffle of 2014 biopics is John Ridley’s Jimi: All Is by My Side, a film with a decent pedigree that quickly came and went. Considering the film as John Ridley’s feature directorial debut (Ridley won an Oscar last year for adapting 12 Years a Slave) and André Benjamin’s first lead performance as the iconic Jimi Hendrix, this should be a more notable project. I was at least expecting to hear that Jimi: All Is by My Side turned out to be an epic misfire from a new director and star.
Instead, it is an odd duck as a biopic that is much more style than substance. It doesn’t really seem to be interested in any narrative other than the very skeletal rise-to-fame story – with this, it doesn’t include any of the major milestone moments that happened in Hendrix’s career, instead focusing on his relationships with Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell). Even the character-building conversations aren’t handled in a mainstream way, as the film cuts around them with inserts or cuts away to nonchalantly look at something else. The film is aggressively edited by Hank Corwin and Chris Gill, who have separately cut such films as The Tree of Life, Moneyball and 28 Days Later. Their sometimes flowing, sometimes kinetic styles of film editing is stamped onto Jimi: All Is by My Side in wonderful ways.
The inserts and cutaways are difficult to describe, but they smartly fill in the gaps while avoiding the usual biopic pitfalls. The technique is best realized during a phone call Jimi makes to his estranged father after travelling to London for some gigs. Their conversation doesn’t go into much detail, mostly just Jimi looking to gloat and his father being upset by having to accept a collect call. During this conversation, however, pictures of Jimi’s childhood flash on the screen – we see what is presumably the house Hendrix grew up in and pictures of a very young Hendrix with his father. There is almost a contradiction between this documentary-style footage and the film’s otherwise stream-of-consciousness editing.
This is anything but a vanity project for Benjamin, who seems to half-play Hendrix as a dreary, unattached man whose blank stares are occasionally intersected by LSD-enhanced philosophical musings. Hendrix certainly isn’t the dynamic presence as he has become immortalized – at least he’s not that icon yet. The offbeat energy in the performance complements the musical performance, where we see Hendrix’s charisma grow immeasurably from beginning to end. Though there is something weird and seemingly attention seeking about a famous musician in his late 30s portraying another famous musician who died when he was 27, Benjamin brings in the right amount of reverence. The performance is actually quite good, very committed to being low-key, never feeling showy.
Jimi: All Is by My Side is lighter on music than I expected – perhaps due to the producers inability to get rights to any of Jimi Hendrix’s actual music. The film compensates by allowing Benjamin to go on long guitar riff jams, which he performs incredibly well. Strangely, we don’t see Benjamin sing as Hendrix until the very end of the film (a rendition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and then Wild Thing over the end credits), when Hendrix is at the ledge of becoming a worldwide star. This becomes almost a running joke throughout the film, which seems to cut away to avoid it and at other times we hear weary-growing audience members complaining about the fact.
Those who come to Jimi: All Is by My Side purely as Hendrix fans will likely be disappointed, but there is a lot being offered between the riffs (not what they are looking for). I can’t say I learned much of anything about Hendrix, not that this is any sort of requirement. That certainly isn’t the film’s aim, which works much more as a mood piece with a slight philosophical slant.
Included on the DVD release includes a short featurette with Waddy Wachtel, musician and composer of the film’s music sequences, and producer Danny Bramson answering the question of whether Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time. Spoiler alert: they are in favor.