Musician/actor Andre Benjamin a.k.a. Andre 3000, returns to the big screen playing legendary guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix in “Jimi: All Is By My Side.”
Benjamin was born in Atlanta in 1975, five years after Hendrix died of a drug overdose at age 27. The product of a different generation, he doesn’t recall hearing Hendrix’s distinctive and much-copied rock and R&B sound until he was in his 20s.
“I was into rap and sports,” the founding member of the hip-hop duo OutKast reveals.
He first heard the music of the famed guitarist while watching a movie, though he can’t specifically recall which movie it was. With similar features and sharing a similar build to Hendrix, not to mention having music skills, it comes as no surprise that Benjamin had been approached before about depicting the world-famous musician, but it wasn’t until he was contacted by John Ridley, who won an Academy Award last year for his “12 Years a Slave” script, that he gave the idea serious consideration.
Known primarily as a Grammy-winning music artist, Benjamin acted in the underrated musical “Idlewild,” “Four Brothers” and “Be Cool.” But the challenge of depicting on film one of the most iconic music figures of the 20th century was both frightening and also tempting to him.
The 39-year-old spent more than seven months rehearsing with a coach to sharpen his guitar-playing skills enough to convince moviegoers he was Hendrix onscreen. Making that task even more challenging was the fact that Benjamin is right-handed and Hendrix was left-handed. While the filmmakers considered allowing Benjamin to play right-handed and then flip the negative, the cost of making those changes digitally proved prohibitive, so Benjamin simply learned to play left-handed, while making it look effortless and dressed up to look like the rock legend.
Unlike most biopics, which frequently span a performer’s life, “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” confines its story to 1966-67, a seminal period in which an unknown backup guitarist playing New York’s Cheetah Club moves to London where he storms the local music scene. While there, he becomes involved with three very different women: posh talent scout Linda Keith, sexy groupie/girlfriend Kathy Etchingham and Ida, a sly interloper who vies for the guitarist’s affection.
Benjamin says it was the story of Hendrix’s struggle to become a professional musician that he identified with and wanted to explore.
Q: What sets “Jimi: All Is By My Side” from other biopics?
Benjamin: What’s important about this one is that we get to see a little more of the person, the human side of Hendrix, which is really important in a lot of artists’ lives. Because I’m an entertainer myself, I know how important that is: the people around you, the people that support you, and the people that nurture you. Hendrix definitely wouldn’t be Hendrix if it weren’t for the people around him. That’s what this movie’s about. What resonates with viewers is seeing the human side of an artist, knowing Hendrix was nervous, knowing he didn’t like his voice, that it actually took a minute for him to get comfortable.
Q: Of the footage you watched of Jimi, what stood out for you?
Benjamin: There’s footage on YouTube of his first performance in Paris—it’s black and white footage—and he’s rolling around on stage, but it’s not as cool as it looks at Monterey, so it took him a minute to learn and get the confidence. As humans, we like to say, “He’s just like me.” We put him up there (on a pedestal), but he had to get there first.
Q: This drama follows Hendrix’s journey during the year he broke through. Was there a year like that for you?
Benjamin: I know from being an entertainer for 20 years how people approach me. I know what people write about me. I know when people see me on the street what they say, and they put you up here. But, the whole time, I just know I’m this kid doing the music that I love doing. I’m not thinking this is just how people perceive you. So, it’s like, I can’t say what that date was for me. I can’t look back now and say, “Whoa, those were a few great years,” because it’s now 20 years later. When you’re in it, you don’t really know what’s going on, so I can’t pinpoint a date.
Q: You’re right-handed and you had to learn how to play left-handed because Jimi was left-handed. Was that tricky?
Benjamin: I remember having a conversation (with John) a couple of days before we left for Ireland (telling him I wasn’t comfortable playing left-handed). Another thing about the left hand thing, and I think any guitarist would agree, was that Jimi was the most comfortable-looking guitarist in the world. Most guitarists, even if they’re great, look like they’re doing a task, like they’re working. But Jimi never looked like he was working. It always looked like he had an extra hand. But John said to me, “The way we shoot it, you’ll be OK.”
Q: In retrospect, what was it like to play Jimi Hendrix in a movie?
Benjamin: I feel like a very lucky man. I don’t do a lot of movie work so when John approached, there was a little hesitance by me to do it. I’m more of an idealist. If I feel like it’s something that I can believe in as a whole and the outcome will be great, I’ll put my all into it. To be honest, I don’t think you necessarily have to be an actor to act, just as you don’t have to be a musician to make great music. If it comes along and you put your all into it, it’s the outcome that’s important. I still don’t consider myself an actor. I don’t go to classes and that kind of thing, but if I have a project that I’m interested in, and I need to go to classes, then I will.