Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Jimi: All is By My Side

[Note: This was a film review first published on Joyless Creatures here.]

Like Deep Impact and Armageddon, right behind the James Brown biopic Get on Up is Jimi: All is By My Side. Starring Andre Benjamin (better known to many as Andre 3000 of OutKast), All is By My Side vividly recreates the slang and fashions of 1966 London, while only rarely falling into the trap of rock nostalgia clich├ęs and, in fact, ends up becoming a celebration of the purity and fearlessness of Hendrix’s approach to music.

There are a few films that stand out in relation to Jimi: All is By My Side.
One is the 1995 film Backbeat, which covered the early, pre-songwriting
days of the Beatles, therefore avoiding mammoth Lennon/McCartney licensing
fees. The Hendrix family estate, which is notoriously protective of Jimi’s
catalog, refused to allow any songs in All is By My Side. Subsequently the
 film has to skip over some musical bits when showing the recording of the
 first album Are You Experienced? but otherwise the lack of Hendrix
compositions is not a major flaw in this film.

The other film this reminds me of is Velvet Goldmine, where David Bowie
notoriously forbade any of his songs on the soundtrack, marking a keen
absence in a film that is basically about his life. Like Velvet Goldmine,
Jimi has a narrative threadbare quality and does not shy away from the
ugly side of its subject’s behavior.
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The movie is also distinguished in that it gives almost equal time to female
roles. Imogen Poots is Linda Keith, the teenage model who first discovered
quiet guitarist Jimmy James playing backup for Curtis Knight & the Squires
to an audience of a dozen people. Keith, then the girlfriend of Rolling Stones
guitarist Keith Richards, tries to enlist the help of their manager Andrew
“Loog” Oldham, who pronounces him “rubbish.” Keith is tenacious and goes
through every connection she has in the music industry. No one is interested
except Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), bassist for the Animals, who is
planning to quit and manage some new acts. He knows the blues and realizes
 that Jimi is something special. Before long, he has managed to convince a
reluctant Hendrix to go to England, where white audiences are more receptive
 to black blues players.

Jimi and Linda have a connection, but it is promptly cut off when Kathy
Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a hairdresser, enters the picture. Theirs is a
romance that has its shares of troubles. Director John Ridley does a great job
making each of these women full, rounded characters—yes, Kathy is portrayed
as sometimes frivolous and in love with her partner’s rock n roll stardom, she is
also acutely human, capable of warmth and understanding, not always jealous or
mean-spirited or soul-sucking as these types of roles tend to be. Atwell does a great
job inhabiting the part.

The main acting accolades, of course, have to go to Andre, perhaps my
favorite musician of the past 20 years. He had been rumored to be working
on the role longer than a decade ago, and now at 39, he is a great deal older
than the part—a decade and a half at least. But being far past Hendrix’s age
was probably a minor challenge, compared to other difficulties.

One thing about Hendrix that makes him so amazing to watch, and one of the
few guitar geniuses that no one can really imitate, is that he was left-handed,
but played a right-handed guitar upside down. Benjamin is right-handed and
switching to a left-handed guitar is no easy thing, let alone playing it upside
down. According to Benjamin, who actually is a guitar player (of limited skill,
by his own admission), it took months of grueling practice to mime the parts
in this film. He is not actually playing, but he did master the fingering to look
like a reasonable facsimile, and that by itself is almost as difficult. Imagine
being asked to play exactly like Mozart, but on a piano whose keys are inverted,
while hanging upside down. That should give you a general idea of the level of
difficulty here.
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Then there’s the additional factor that Hendrix played these difficult guitar parts
 with such ease and confidence. Making all of his performances look natural and
unrehearsed must have been the hardest part. Benjamin even kept in character
during the entire Dublin shoot, speaking to Ridley and his fellow actors in Hendrix’s
 dated hippie-dippie slang. All of this is Daniel Day-Lewis-level commitment and far
 more than I ever expected from 3000 as an actor.

This fan of Hendrix’s guitar-playing appreciates that so much time was put into
making Andre’s fretwork look authentic. Often in music biopics, the actors, no
matter how much they embody the part, look less than convincing playing
instruments onstage. Benjamin’s past as a charismatic rapper and performer
comes in handy here. Considering Hendrix was so dedicated to pushing forward
 the guitar as a sonic instrument of infinite variety and capacity, it makes sense
that the film would put so much care into making the playing look and sound authentic.

Overall, it’s an uncanny impersonation, not just because Andre looks the part
somewhat. There are some things that even Benjamin cannot emulate—he
doesn’t possess Hendrix’s giant hands, for instance—but he changes his entire
voice, losing the nasal southern tones we associate so heavily with OutKast,
and replaces that with Hendrix’s pacific northwest gilt, his protruding lower
lip, and his overall soft voice and booming tone. Late in the film there is the
famous performance of the Experience doing an almost punk version of “Sgt.
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” two days after the album release, in front
of an audience that included the Beatles. I have seen this performance many
times in various rock documentaries and was amazed at Benjamin’s
impersonation, his commitment to the moments I remember like moving up
the fret board with the palm of his hand, telling the audience to “cover your
ears,” the part where he throws the cigarette down just before singing—
overall, it was an uncanny recreation of the television experience. You can
see in this scene how Hendrix and Benjamin, though very different types of
artists, approach their music with a similar purity of intention.
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This is normal subject matter in biopics, but Ridley does a great job illuminating
 his subject’s flaws while not ever treating them as the unfortunate but necessary
 affectations of the “genius artist.” Ridley portrays Hendrix as inarticulate at times
 and sometimes too quick to resort to stock hippie phrases like “when the power of
 love overcomes the love of power,” at one point rambling about aliens to a groupie.
 Race is not a major factor in the film, but it does come up a few times as Hendrix is
 accosted by British police and meets with radical drug dealer Michael X, who
describes the history of segregation in London and asks the guitarist to be a symbol
 to the black British as Hendrix tries to demure, saying “that’s not my bag, man.”
The subtext here, as is common throughout the film, is Hendrix’s relationship with
white women and his unease with African-American audiences.

In fact, Ridley’s script goes deep into Hendrix’s psyche. There is of course the matter
of his absent mother, which fed his idealized conceptions of the women he slept with,
as well as a distant, terrorizing father. Ridley also implies that Hendrix might have had
depression, social anxiety, acute fear of conflict, as well as violent mood swings and
dependency (both chemical and physical) issues. On the other hand, his generally mild
demeanor belied a lot of confidence about his guitar skills (as well it should). This is
most hilariously expressed in the scene where Eric Clapton invites Hendrix to play
Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” (a song he would later massacre at the Monterey
Pop Festival) with Cream onstage, and unplugs his guitar and walks out upon
realizing he is no longer needed.

The film is meandering at times, focusing on intimate and small moments in
 Hendrix’s everyday conversations with women, while other parts are formula
 biopic, such as when Jimi’s Monterey Pop Festival gig is put on notice after he
 spends an entire performance tuning his guitar. Thankfully, by only spending a
 year early in Hendrix’s career, we are spared the common narrative of his
drug-fueled spiral and eventual death. In fact, All is By My Side ends on a happy
 note, as Benjamin-as-Hendrix tries to explain to his audience his pure and
transcendent love for music, and how he hopes it has the power to inspire
others. Maybe it’s not the note of realism that a typical biopic would choose to
end on (that would be a scene of Hendrix asphyxiating on barbiturates), but it
honors the musician’s spirit perhaps more than any other ending. For once, a
musical biopic is as much about the music as the man. I can dig.