Saturday night, Oct. 4, The Milwaukee Film Festival held its only screening of the anticipated Jimi Hendrix biopic “Jimi: All Is By My Side” as its Centerpiece Film. Oscar Award-winning Writer/Director and Milwaukee native John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) attended the sold-out screening and stayed afterwards for a Q&A session.
“Jimi: All Is By My Side,” starring André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix, is unlike most biopics in that it doesn’t tell a straightforward childhood-to-death tale of the legendary rock star. Instead, it captures the essence of Hendrix’s character, lifestyle, and struggled rise to fame. “Jimi: All Is By My Side” takes audiences on an immersive look into the identity of Jimi Hendrix and how he came to discover and express himself as a performer.
There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the film, largely due to André Benjamin’s role as Jimi Hendrix. Primarily a musician, Benjamin is known the world over for Outkast, but has also made appearances in films such as “Semi-Pro” and “Idlewild”. Though one might think Benjamin’s musical background would make this role a breeze for him, the two people are very different in styles, demeanor, and musical choices. Besides having to learn to play guitar left-handed, Benjamin also had to adjust his mannerisms and vocals to mimic Hendrix.
Benjamin embodies Hendrix beautifully and depicts his carefree, artistic personality in everything he does in the film. Like Hendrix, Benjamin plays guitar effortlessly, has incredible stage presence, and brings a subtle humor to the role, at times. Arguably the most impressive aspect of Benjamin’s portrayal is how he manages to remain aloof and disconnected, yet still captivating at the same time.
There is an issue preventing viewers from completely liking Hendrix in this movie, however, as one or two scenes show his violent side. One scene in particular shows domestic violence that has the real Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s girlfriend, outraged, insisting that her relationship with Hendrix was never am abusive one. Granted, protagonists don’t need to be completely likeable, but Hendrix is painted as this mellow, artistic genius throughout the movie, and these violent scenes completely contradict the image of Hendrix the audience has come to know. Biographers do consistently state that Hendrix became uncharacteristically violent when drunk, and with Ridley’s approach to film-making, violent tendencies may have been unnecessarily translated into a disturbing, domestic situation.
Ridley’s film-making style captures the essence of a person or place in a hyper-artistic documentary style. He layers voice-overs, clips, and music in an imaginative way, creating a completely immersive experience. When you’re watching André Benjamin play as Hendrix, it feels like you’re actually at a Hendrix concert because of the angles, sound, and this layering effect.
The visual focus on hands in “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” is the particularly effective in telling a lot about a protagonist who doesn’t say much himself. The film in general is made up of a lot of tight shots, but the emphasis on hands- for both Hendrix and other characters- creates tone and insight into the characters.
Despite some controversial domestic violence scenes, “Jimi: All Is By My Side” is most definitely a film worth watching. Whether or not you’re a Hendrix fan, Ridley’s unique and imaginative style along with André Benjamin’s outstanding performance as Hendrix make for an immersive experience into the life and times of Jimi Hendrix. “Jimi: All Is By My Side” had its limited U.S. release on Sept. 26 and will continue to have international screenings.