What do you when you’re making a movie about a musical icon but don’t have the rights to any of his original compositions? It’s an interesting problem, the primary one faced by Jimi: All is by My Side. This rights issue is one that provokes further questions about the purpose of such a biopic in the first place. In telling a portion of the life story of the artist, is the object of the film the artist, or ultimately the art?
If the artist is the end point, then we might reasonably ask whether there weren’t more interesting people than Jimi Hendrix between 1966 and 1967 to make a movie about. This may seem an odd thing to say that about such a revered figure, but between those years — and redacting his dazzling compositions from the story — mostly what you have is an aspiring hippie/rock star who slept around, got stoned, and babbled in his hippie-rockstar way about the cosmos and barriers (the lack of which there should be like hereto thereof none, man). As a person, the real Hendrix as presented here, at least, is not that remarkable or interesting.
If the object of the film is implicitly the art, then we might well ask whether in 2015 we are really going to run down this intellectually blind alley. The author-function is incredibly powerful. Glance at popular arts reviews in newspapers, magazines, and websites: most will at some point reference the director, the actor, the singer, the band, and the producer, as well as their intent, and their background. Furthermore, these reviews will outline the circumstances of the production of the artwork in an attempt to contextualize and explain the artefact under examination. Popular criticism is still drawn inexorably to the author-function as means of understanding the text.
However, don’t we know better and shouldn’t we try harder? In some ways, Hendrix is an excellent example of why dissecting the life of the author as a means of understanding his work is so redundant, putting aside other minor considerations such as post-structuralism. His best work is transcendent, complex, and open to endless readings, but if he himself had ever been prodded to explain it, he may not have been able to. He certainly wouldn’t have approved of the reductive closures often sought by autobiographical readings, whereby a text is chalked off as being the product of a particular experience or biographical detail, its meaning carefully circumscribed and sealed.
Jimi: All is by My Side fudges its lack of music rights by recruiting Waddy Wachtel to play in Hendrix-style various songs which Hendrix would have been playing around this period of his life. If that sounds utterly deflating, it is. It’s the sound of a lawyer grabbing the stereo at a house party, dropping his favorite late-period Genesis album on the turntable, and saying, “Hey guys, I know you were listening to AC/DC, but honestly this is really just as good! You won’t even notice the difference!”
And there’s the rub. While the original Hendrix music can’t really be the ultimate object of the movie, aesthetically it is very important, or at least the half-solution pursued by Jimi: All Is by My Side makes it seem that way. What the movie has in abundance is a lack of spectacle.
We are presented with Chas Chandler seeing Jimi play for the first time in Greenwich Village in what a contemporary audience might call his “Susan Boyle moment”. Chandler’s eyes are wide, and his jaw drops as the then-unknown guitarist plays. The problem here is that the film doesn’t convey the excitement of what Chandler is witnessing. We take our cues from Chandler and we understand that what he’s seeing and hearing must have been good, but for the movie audience it registers as barely even a second-hand thrill. Similarly, we see Jimi win his big break, a spot on the bill at the Monterey Pop Festival, by playing for the Beatles. The Experience strike up the title track to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album released only a few days prior to the gig. The crowd goes crazy. The Beatles stand and applaud. Jimi triumphs.
If Jimi: All Is by My Side were a sports movie, this would be the last second shot which goes in off the post to win the cup. Once again, thoughm there’s a disconnect between the reaction of the extras and what we as viewers are seeing and hearing. While the gig for the Beatles is made to hinge on the clever inclusion of the cover version, there is a gap here and throughout the rest of the picture created by the lack of original Hendrix compositions. We hear none. It references none. We have no desire to see a dishonest and pointless scene where Jimi scribbles down the words to “The Wind Cries Mary”, pausing at the last line before clicking his fingers in a eureka! moment, licking the end of the pencil, and finishing off his masterpiece. The movie refrains from that kind of nonsense, but what we are given is essentially a portrait of the artist without any of the art.
The film feels flat because of this. Even reasonable performances from the cast can’t resuscitate it. Imogen Poots exhibits a crystalline strength as Linda Keith, an early supporter of Hendrix, appearing both ambitious and vulnerable. The character of Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s girlfriend in London, played by Hayley Atwell, is something of a cliché. She’s a fiery redhead from up north, not from “that London”, always ready with sharp words or fists, and so on. It’s a stock character we’ve seen before — think kitchen sink dramas, think Elsie Tanner. (This characterization here is even stranger because the real Kathy Etchingham is from Derby.) Whatever the accuracy of the accent and the quality of the screenplay, Atwell still manages to make us relate to a fairly unbelievable mess of a character.
It’s worth noting that the real Kathy Etchingham has rubbished the veracity of the film, particularly with respects to its portrayal of her relationship with Hendrix. Putting aside the artistic failures of the movie, it seems that anyone seeking “the man behind the myth” in purely factual terms may be disappointed.
André Benjamin does his best Jimi Hendrix impersonation, wearing his best Jimi Hendrix halloween costume. He even walks around in an iconic Hussars tunic for a while. He looks right, and he sounds right. He has Hendrix’s speech patterns down perfectly. Put simply: his lead performance is faultless. Benjamin suffuses a charm and naiveté in Hendrixm even though most of his dialogue is completely forgettable. He deserved to be in a better Hendrix biopic than this. Where Hendrix’s music is a fireworks display, Jimi: All is by My Side is rather grey and lifeless; it draws the viewer closer neither to the man nor his work. One positive thing is that, as stated, Hendrix disapproved of hierarchies and inequalities in life and art, and here at least it’s certain to say that both fans of Hendrix and those entirely unfamiliar with him will get equally little pleasure out of what is unfortunately a misconceived and joyless movie.