So how does one go about telling the story of legendary guitarist and rock ‘n roll icon Jimi Hendrix without the benefit of his most influential tracks? The short answer is that you probably shouldn’t even try, but the approach taken by Oscar-winning writer/director John Ridley is to whittle down Hendrix’s life to a brief snippet. Jimi: All is By My Side isn’t so much a retrospective on his career as an atmospheric daydream of the time when fame is just beginning to take root. It’s a bold attempt by Ridley to subvert the usual biopic boundaries, but he’s defeated by a flat lead performance and a script that tells us little about Hendrix.
The story is well known at this point. Hendrix was just another musician toiling away trying to eke out a living in the competitive rock and R&B scene of the 1960s. At that point Hendrix wasn’t eking out much of anything despite working with some pretty big bands using a guitar that wasn’t even his own. That’s right, young Hendrix couldn’t afford his own instrument, and was something of a shiftless layabout to the woman in his life at the time. He borrowed her money and used it to get away from her, basically, but on this one night everything would change. It was the famous night at the Cheetah Club where he would meet Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), the then-girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. She was infatuated with his sound, his look, the whole charismatic vibe, and with her help he began meeting the right people and a legend was born.
Well, sort of. The Hendrix we see is hardly great, despite us being told repeatedly how special everything about him is. Ridley never gives us a taste of his musical wizardry, and not having access to Hendrix’s songs eventually becomes a big hurdle. It’s not in the beginning when he’s basically doing covers, but that’s also when we’re treated to a bland exploration of his issues with women. Linda, who refuses to leave Keith Richards to be by Hendrix’s side, nonetheless has complete control over him. The drug abuse that would eventually be his downfall began at her urging. But at the same time she got him in touch with Chas Chandler who would become his manager, help form the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and land high-profile gigs in London.
Characters flit in and out of Hendrix’s life, some more relevant than others. Hayley Atwell plays his longtime girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, with whom he hooks up with the day after his arrival in London. There’s a glimpse at the jealousy between her and Linda, but other than one brief blow-up it’s shunted to the background like so many other interesting avenues. For instance, Hendrix’s role as a famous, flamboyant African-American in racially charged London is largely ignored except for one laughable conversation with a “Black Power” radical that goes nowhere. Other choices Ridley makes are puzzling deviations from history, and it’s probably safe to call this mostly a work of fiction. When not holding a distant, aloof attitude towards women Hendrix is given to fits of violent anger that he takes out on them physically. It’s one that that Etchingham, the target of one of the outbursts in the film, says that was never the case, but they don’t actually add anything to our understanding of Hendrix either the man or the rock legend. We never see the work he put into developing the sound he would be recognized for.
All is By My Side amounts to a series of imagined conversations, with Andre Benjamin struggling to hold our attention through them. On paper he would seem to be a sneaky smart pick to play Hendrix, but it’s an idea that should have stayed on paper and not put in practice. Most of the problem lies with Ridley’s rambling screenplay not giving Benjamin much to work with, but he also lacks the enigmatic charm Hendrix had in spades. When we see Benjamin’s Hendrix giving a flat rendition of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with the group watching from the crowd, all we can think is that these guys have nothing to worry about from this guy.