Jimi Hendrix gets the origin story treatment in this unofficial biopic of the musician’s early years in London. An initially interesting look at the formation of one of music’s most flamboyant rock stars, debut director John Ridley (Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave) unfortunately overplays his hand, resulting in a confusing mess of cultural touchstones and questionable narrative choices. A disappointing biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side tries to eschew all the trappings of the genre but at the same time, falls prey to its worst tendencies.
In the mid-1960s, Jimi Hendrix (André Benjamin) plays guitar for a two-bit band in New York City when he is discovered by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Determined to bring his unique sound to the masses, Linda takes him to London where they put together the Jimi Hendrix Experience and begin to make waves on the British music scene. All this fame and fortune coincides though with his rocky private life, which includes his experimentation with drugs, his dealing with racism and his intense relationship with groupie turned girlfriend Kathy (Hayley Atwell).
One of the first and most noticeable problems with the All Is by My Side is that it is not officially sanctioned by the Hendrix estate, meaning the film is missing all of the music for which the guitarist is most famous. Instead, there is generic, non-descript psychedelic guitar music used to approximate his sound and a commitment to tell the story of his early days in an attempt to try and draw attention away from this glaring omission. By focusing on this earlier period in Hendrix’s life, we only see the burgeoning icon, and any attempt to pepper the narrative with foreshadowing of his later life falls flat.
Ridley also tries to draw our attention to the period of the wider world of the 60s by intercutting the drama with montages encapsulating the milieu of the time. The use of news footage places the film within the socio-political upheaval of the time while concert footage of bands like The Who act as a reminder of the cultural impact music was having back then. This technique is actually quite effective, creating the right atmosphere to the point where the world feels lived in and Hendrix’s development as an artist can be experienced in the right context. However, the editing eventually goes too far, with scenes being cut off mid-stream or transitions that are made in a dissociative way, only making it clearer that Ridley is a first-time director.
In his first major movie role, André Benjamin imbues Hendrix with a magnum of cool and aloofness, but with enough of a motor running under the hood that the performance is more than just an accumulation of affectations. Imogen Poots is perfectly fine, although it is starting to feel like she is being cast in every film set in 1960s London, causing a little Poots fatigue starting to set in.
Unfortunately, it is Hayley Atwell who gets the short end of the stick, as she is saddled with the Ever Suffering Girlfriend role, leaving her with only three gears within which to work: annoying bimbo, shrieking harpy or complete mess. This does not a character make, and an actor of such Atwell’s talent deserves much better. It is her character’s relationship with Hendrix where this film completely falls down.
There is a scene where Hendrix and Kathy are in a pub during a time where their relationship has become strained; she fears he is pulling away from her as his fame grows, he feels she is holding him back. The scene ends with a sudden and violent moment that destroys all good will the audience could possibly still have for the film. It feels completely out of character for Hendrix and really has no foreshadowing that could make this moment make any sense. The film then behaves like this never happened and expects us to carry on identifying with Hendrix, as his ultimate moment of triumph occurs not long after this scene. The story goes that the Hendrix estate withdrew their support of the film because they claimed this moment never actually occurred. This makes its inclusion in the final film a complete mystery, as not only did it result in All Is by My Side not being able to use any original music, but proved a greater detriment to the film itself.
Jimi: All Is by My Side tries very hard to avoid being a biopic – with its more experimental flourishes and editing choices, plus the narrative decisions that have already caused a fair bit of controversy – but the film still manages to feel exactly like a biopic all the same. There is really nothing original or innovative occurring here, just a first-time director trying to make their mark by throwing everything he can at the wall to see what sticks. This is a perfectly fine way of doing this as far as it goes, but it feels like the motivation behind it is merely for shock rather than any legitimate desire to get to the higher truth of the story.