My Dinner With Jimi is a re-enactment of Howard Kaylan’s memories of one spectacular summer night in the Swinging London of 1967. It’s everything you’d expect to find in a purple-hazy, half-remembered reminiscence filled with hit songs, hash pipes and pop legends. The fact that it comes from Kaylan, a Turtle and one half of Flo and Eddie, means that not only is it authentically faithful to the events and vibe of the times, but it’s also enthusiastically hilarious.
The film begins just before the Turtles released “Happy Together” and Kaylan (Justin Henry), co-vocalist Mark Volman and their band mates are rising in the L.A. scene on the strength of early hits like “She’d Rather Be with Me” and a cover of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”. We see the energetic young combo playing the Whisky with a little band called the Doors as opening act, and hanging out at Cantor’s Deli with Frank Zappa and Mama Cass.
All of this is wonderfully mad-cap, as is the teen magazine photo shoot which includes actual text from the original articles (Personality: Mature and sensitive, Hobbies: Painting…), but its purpose is to prepare you — or show how unprepared The Turtles were — for the mind-blowing experience London was to afford the band.
When “Happy Together” becomes a number one smash, the Turtles head to England where the boys meet up with The Hollies’ Graham Nash (Chris Soldevilla), who becomes their unofficial guide on a wild ride. They are treated to a smoke with Donovan (Rob Benedict) and a life-changing pre-release spin of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Nash’s flat.
When taken to The Speakeasy later, our incredulous heroes meet their heroes, and unfortunately The Beatles, John Lennon in particular, didn’t quite live up to their legends on the eve of the unveiling of the masterpiece that was Pepper. Of course, for every hero that falls there is another on the rise.
Kaylan’s band mates flee the scene after the Beatle debacle, and he’s left alone in a strange city signing an autograph for… Brian Jones. Jones (a wonderful Jay Michael Ferguson), it turns out, was a huge fan of the west coast sound that spawned the Turtles, and he introduces the awe-struck Kaylan to another life-changing musician who, like Kaylan, is on the eve of superstardom.
Royale Watkins plays the titular dinner companion, and he is arguably the best thing about the entire film (and that’s saying a lot, because it’s all fantastic). Hendrix was obviously the best thing about Kaylan’s memories of the night, otherwise the film would be called, Toking with Donovan or Graham Takes Us On a Trip, but Watkins’ portrayal of him is beyond brilliant. It’s so much more than homage, which would’ve been understandable. In no way does it seem like a parody, either, which might have been expected.
No, this isn’t a collection of studied mannerisms, this man inhabits the character the way the character wears the red velvet suit: with complete confidence. He’s an irresistible, magnetic and utterly transfixing presence.
Clearly, Kaylan felt the same way about the original. His awkwardly endearingly recollections of his experience show him as the fan to which all can relate. His reverently detailed descriptions of each of these amazing artists demonstrate the depth of his admiration for them, which all can recognize. The fact that he was one of them is not lost on the viewer, either.
That he can recall that night with such clarity and affection, given all of the great things that must have happened to him before and since, is what makes this movie magnificent. But then, the fact that he can recall that night at all makes My Dinner With Jimi miraculous!