Hendrix Unmasked In Ethereal "Jimi: All Is By My Side"

John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is By My Side” is the Hendrix biopic no one else had the nerve to make. Without the cooperation of the late rock star’s estate, the “12 Years A Slave” screenwriter had no choice but to get creative, somehow turning a void of classic songs and zeitgeist-catching moments into an asset. In capturing just a year in the guitar god’s life – from his first big break in the UK to a much-heralded homecoming at the Monterey Pop Festival – Ridley and star Andre Benjamin (half of legendary hip-hop duo Outkast) have fashioned something that’s more esteemed docudrama than traditional biopic, equal parts challenging and refreshing – and sure to please Hendrix purists.

Surprisingly, “All Is By My Side” nearly halves its screen time between Hendrix and the women in his life, tipping off with Linda Keith (the always wonderful Imogen Poots) – most famous for being Keith Richards’ longtime squeeze – and her pursuit of Jimi as a personal pet project. She plucks the soft-spoken, often stunningly naive shredder from the club circuit and sets him face to face with some industry titans – namely, Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), original bass player for Britpop outfit The Animals and fledgling manager. Once Hendrix secures proof of American citizenship, the trio sets off to the UK.

Despite its fairly straightforward narrative – musician rises to fame over the course of a calendar year – Ridley employs some disorienting editing tricks (jump cuts aplenty) to wild effect. A technique that ostensibly begins as a mirror of Hendrix’s first experience with LSD – gifted by Linda Keith – is kept up for much of the film, including frequent use of stock footage and still photos to depict the star’s tumultuous Seattle upbringing. It goes a long way in relaying the kind of crippling loneliness that often comes with stardom, allowing the Ridley to juxtapose the musician’s debauchery with private, cutting flashes of desperation.

In act two, the film pivots from Hendrix’s den-mother-like relationship with Linda Keith to his torrid love affair with groupie Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell). Atwell does much of the pic’s emotional heavy lifting to little fanfare, serving as Hendrix’s paradoxically free-spirited anchor. As written, it’s a loud performance that Atwell manages to underplay, doing great work against a frequently quiet lead performer. Together the two make their shared screen time uniformly memorable, even though Hendrix’s outbursts of violence against her are allegedly fictional.

It’s no surprise that Benjamin’s performance is the crux of the picture, and what he lacks in youth – he’s more than a decade older than Hendrix was at his death – he makes up for in physicality and musical chops. With eyes squinted, it’s impossible to tell him apart from the real thing, from hairdo to wardrobe, and his voice – while not quite as smoky – serves just fine. He’s able to communicate the star’s duality – shifting from calm to cocky in the blink of an eye – with ease, and when he nonchalantly busts out a new Beatles song on stage in the presence of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Benjamin has the star power to sell the moment.

But the film’s brightest star is its sound design, which absolutely sparkles. In sync with Hank Corwin’s trippy editing, Glenn Freemantle’s sound work is startlingly detailed, making its presence known at all times. And without immense sound design, what good is a music film? Against all odds, John Ridley has assembled the ideal team to tackle an exceedingly ambitious project, one that bears fruit at nearly every turn. While not for mainstream audiences, “Jimi: All Is By My Side” is a must for period piece buffs and Hendrix historians.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 26, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: XLRator Media
Director: John Ridley
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Starring: Andre Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Andrew Buckley
MPAA Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and some drug content)