A rhetorical question: can you film a Jimi Hendrix biopic without using any of his signature tunes? Or without a flaming guitar, Woodstock or any of the images in the cultural consciousness of Hendrix?
All Is By My Side attempts this to varying success, depending on what kind of movie you’re looking for. Those searching for a narrative rags-to-riches biopic in the vein of Walk the Line will be confused and disappointed. Due to legal constraints (the Hendrix estate refused to license any of Jimi’s music) and artistic decisions, All Is By My Side ends up being something totally different.
Written and directed by John Ridley (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave), the film focuses on a year of Hendrix’s life, from his discovery by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) at New York’s Cheetah Club to his life in London, the formation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and lead-up to his firey debut at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival.
Even then, the narrative structure is loose. Shows are played, the characters alternately duke it out and party yet Hendrix remains a passive spectator in his rapidly accelerating rise. Hendrix, played eerily well by Outkast’s Andre 3000, was never a typical rock star. He refrained from overt political statements, wasn’t extroverted and was unusually taciturn. In his private life, he was a lifetime drug user (though weirdly this is rarely shown on camera—only its effects) and was prone to violence (this is unflinchingly displayed twice).
As a result, he’s not a very likable or relatable lead. People are are frustrated with his attitude, and so is the audience. Time and again, he has to be convinced to take up opportunities: to hire former Animals bassist Chas Chandler as manager, to travel to London, to perform at Monterey. Other celebrities appear on camera, arrestingly freeze-framed and named. This kills the momentum and adds nothing; Hendrix couldn’t care less about celebrities (except for Eric Clapton, who storms off stage during a jam session).
Andre 3000 learned to play the guitar left-handed for the role and does so excellently. Without Hendrix’s original music, the soundtrack is relegated to covers of classics: “Hound Dog,” “Wild Thing” and guitar solos that are impressive but not attached to any song. In a triumphant performance, the Experience performs “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for the Beatles, two days after its release. It’s a little bizarre that a Hendrix movie’s big performance is a cover. But this movie isn’t about the music, it’s about the artist, and that’s what will make or break it for viewers.
Hendrix seemed to float above it all. He was prone to philosophizing about adding color to the world or aliens visiting Earth and guiding humans to truth. When British civil rights activist Michael X tries to recruit Hendrix, Jimi shrugs him off with his own lackadaisical yet cogent philosophy.
The film sails along with Hendrix. Dates, conversations, people and lovers fade in and out. Yet Jimi remains, gliding over all, on his way to superstardom and destruction.
All Is By My Side is premiering at the SXSW Festival in March; it does not have an official U.S. release date.