(Just out on VOD:)
“Jimi: All Is By My Side” (2013) [originally “All Is By My Side”] 118 mins.
(A drama based on Hendrix’s life as he left New York City for London, where his career took off.)
Director, Screenplay: John Ridley
Starring: André Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots
This bio-pic was fittingly obtuse in some ways, hard to follow—not unlike its subject. I’ve never been quick on the uptake—much of my favorite music is music I disliked on first hearing—and Hendrix certainly falls into that category. But the funny thing is that I appreciate and enjoy Hendrix more with age—and having seen this movie (and allowing for its being a cinematic work rather than a reference work, but nonetheless) I think Hendrix was too prolix and light-heartedly free in his music for the age of the super-serious, socially-conscious music stars such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan. That was certainly my youthful problem with him—so maybe I’m just projecting.
But being unlimited in what he could do with a guitar, his penchant for musical playfulness, flights of fancy, and unabashed abrogation of anyone and everyone else’s songs, styles, and techniques was to be expected. He was a virtuoso in a time after the recognition of virtuosity. His newer age had ‘discovered’ that emotional depth and spirit outdid pure expertise every time, but we (I was a way-too-serious ten-year-old on Long Island during Hendrix’s year in London) may have overlooked the fact that some virtuosi, such as Mozart or Chopin, were expert musicians as a side-effect of their unbounded talent and artistry—as was (is?) the case with Hendrix.
My confusion with tenses needs explaining—it’s just that musicians may die, but in our time, music lives forever; and it’s hard to separate the person and their music. If, when listening to Hendrix’s recording of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”, I lose myself inside Hendrix’s performance, is he not alive? But, that’s my issue—so I leave it here.
In my youth, there was a compulsion among some of my peers to analyze the lives of their musical heroes—as if the biographical data, no matter how trivial, always gave greater insight into the music they so revered. I was never reverential about anything—I was raised to ‘show respect’, which I quickly learned meant speaking and acting in such a way as to avoid getting beat up or killed, so I reserve my true respect for very few things, and even fewer people. I suppose those music-obsessive friends of mine bothered me because they were the exact opposite—too quick to give their respect, unthinkingly and completely.
But in this movie, which covers a pivotal, but single year in the life and career of Jimi Hendrix, I was shown that biography can indeed be a powerful way of granting insight into, if not the music, certainly the musician. How effective it is for those who only know the sixties second-hand, I can’t say—but that is neither the filmmakers’ nor my problem. I didn’t require the big-picture, historical back-fill—and I was tickled by all the little details, drenched with significance by their connection to his more broad-cast iconography.
André Benjamin does a great job, although I was given pause by one aspect of his performance. He depicts Jimi Hendrix as a thoughtful, gentle, infinitely peaceful dude—but then, in one scene (and I assume it’s historically accurate) his character, in a sudden rage, repeatedly smashes his girlfriend’s face with one of those old pay-phone phone-receivers—she ends up hospitalized. Now, either Mr. Benjamin, or Mr. Ridley, or someone—did a little image-buffing here, or there was a far more physical side to Jimi Hendrix than we see in the course of this film, outside of that one scene.
And it is remarkable that Hendrix’s past is well-indicated, that his childhood was not an easy one, nor his father quick to give approval (or able to) while also depicting his on-screen self, the product of that environment, as very self-contained, almost demurring. He is shown to be unusually sensitive, it’s true, and unstable in some ways, but extreme sensitivity, raised in a harsh environment, rarely produces the o-so-civil young adult portrayed through most of the film. But now I’m just spouting—is it the film, the history, or my own assumptions that raise the issue? Anyway, it just stuck out as a question, to me, plus I was shocked by the sudden savagery—which distracted me from the film. Is that too critical?
All in all, I was swept up by the experience (if you’ll pardon the pun). I won’t say I enjoyed it, because the story of Jimi Hendrix is not a happy story with a happy ending—and I do love happy endings. Based-on-fact films, however, are not famous for predictable, tied-in-a-bow endings—and I watch them for engagement and education, more than mere enjoyment. And “All Is By My Side” certainly succeeds in that sense.