(XLRATOR MEDIA/DARKO ENTERTAINMENT/FREEMANFILMS/MATADOR PICTURES (118 minutes/Rated R); 2014)
When this movie was originally announced, there were grumblings and, in the case of Experience Hendrix (the company formed by some members of the Hendrix family to oversee everything Jimi), outright venom spewed at director/writer John Ridley, actor Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 of the hip-hop/pop/rock duo, Outkast) and others associated with the project. The Experience Hendrix people demanded complete participation and final approval on every aspect of the movie, including who would play Jimi; they were adamant that Benjamin be replaced. When their demands were rebuked, they pulled all licensing of Hendrix’ music for use in the film. Feathers were also ruffled by the portrayal of certain of the man’s character traits and, no doubt, the characterization of his father, Al. I could never really understand the family’s dislike of Mister Benjamin but, I have read some rather ludicrous comments from others on the subject: Andre, according to one person, was several shades too dark to accurately portray the lighter skinned Hendrix (that one just absolutely boggles the mind); another cited Benjamin’s age (somewhere around 37 when filming began), stating that he was too old to play a 23 year old Hendrix (uh… that’s just ridiculous… let’s examine, shall we? The four high school kids from WELCOME BACK, KOTTER were all in their twenties when the series began – John Travolta was the youngest, at 21; Ron Pallilo was 26 and only four years younger than his “teacher,” Gabe Kaplan. That’s just one example… this kinda stuff happens regularly in movies and television), but if 60 is the new 40, then 40 is the new 27 and, suddenly, 37 isn’t so far removed from 23. Another… I’m gonna call it an “observation” that I’ve read (and heard from friends) is the fact that Andre is a “hip-hop” guy and, well, he couldn’t know anything about Jimi Hendrix (ay, caramba! I give up!). Of course, the major complaint is the fact that the film-makers could not use any of Jimi’s music. So, how does the movie stack up against all of that hate? Very well, thank you.
Before getting into the meat and taters (so to speak) of the film, I would like to address several of the issues listed above. Let’s start with the biggie: Jimi’s music. The ban was limited to actual recordings of Hendrix and to songs that he wrote. The former really had no bearing on the production, as the music was performed by a crack group of session men (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Kenny Aranoff), with vocals by Benjamin; the latter would have been devastating had the movie focused on Jimi’s legendary career past June 1967, because during the time span featured (June 1966 through June 1967), Hendrix had only released one album (ARE YOU EXPERIENCED in May ’67) and three singles (sure, two of those were “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” but those also came out in May ’67). So, the music focuses on the time that Hendrix played rhythm and blues standards with Curtis Knight and such classic blues numbers as “Killing Floor” and “Manish Boy.” As far as I’m concerned, that works fine for me and plays into the narrative of Hendrix’ rise to stardom in England during that twelve-month period. The Hendrix family, no doubt, wanted to avoid much of the foibles and the darker side of, not only Jimi, but his father, as well; I gotta admit that I was shocked by a couple of violent outbursts in the film but, who among us can say they are foible-free and don’t possess a darker side to some extent? Now, as far as Andre Benjamin’s skin-tone, if he were a white guy in black make-up, I would see that as a definite problem; since, however, the performance and the voice and the mannerisms are the important thing here, I’m good, as Andre was spot on, based on just about every film clip I’ve ever seen or every audio clip that I’ve ever heard of Jimi Hendrix… except the hands… for some reason, the way he holds and plays the guitar and the way he uses his hands throughout just doesn’t match up with what Hendrix did. You saw my feelings regarding the age discrepancy, so we’ll move on from there to Andre 3000 being a hip-hop guy and not knowing anything about Hendrix. Really? I’m a pasty white guy from the middle of nowhere who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s as a pasty white kid from the middle of nowhere, but I know and love a wide variety of music and artists from the ’50s and earlier. And, hey, just to make that particular section of the populace even crankier, I listen to hip-hop, too.
If I have one complaint about JIMI… it’s that it tends to jump around a bit much, leaving a lot of the context of what’s happening up to the viewer (a noble tactic for a horror movie… not here). There are also several stop frames, where a character is identified (Keith Richard, Chas Chandler, Noel Redding) before moving into whatever scene is up next. The whole thing rather reminds me of an old John’s Children song called “Jagged Time Lapse,” which the songwriter, when asked what the title meant, replied, “It’s about jagged lapses of time, innit?” The movie starts at the end, on June 4, 1967, as the Jimi Hendrix Experience are about to take the stage at the Saville Theatre in London (of which, more later). We are quickly transported in time back one year, to the Cheetah Club in New York, where Jimi is playing with Curtis Knight. One of the audience members is the very bored, very spoiled girlfriend of Keith Richard, Linda Keith (played by the beautiful and unfortunately named Imogen Poots), who is immediately taken with the man hiding in the back corner of the stage, just waiting for his solo to come around. Flash forward to Linda turning Jimi on to acid and, later, trying to make him see just how gifted a musician he really is. When he tells her that he can’t leave Knight’s band because the guitar he’s using belongs to his employer, she buys him the white Gibson that would become somewhat of a trademark during those early days. As Linda becomes more involved with Hendrix, she begins to contact the movers and shakers within her circle (the Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, co-founders of the newly formed Sire Records, Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer), actively seeking a management and recording deal for him. In a particularly humorous (and somewhat ironic) scene, the Stones’ guitar player, in a petulant pique of jealousy, visits Linda’s father to have him intervene in the situation with Jimi; Keith tells Mister Keith, “And he’s a drug addict. Did you know that? He has her strung out all the time.”
A chance meeting with Animals bassist Bryan “Chas” Chandler, at the end of an American tour (and the end of the original Animals line-up), finally garners Linda the guidance for Jimi’s career that she has been seeking: Chandler (played by a virtual doppleganger, Andrew Buckley) is retiring from playing and moving into management. The scene where Chas first hears Hendrix is an absolute priceless moment in the film, with Chandler’s eyes wide and jaw dropped as he’s mesmerized by the guitarist’s ability (if not his stage presence). Linda sets up a meeting between the two rockers and, literally, history is made as Chandler convinces Jimi to head for the much greener pastures of England, with promises of a much more diverse and open-minded approach to the burgeoning music scene there. Jimi arrives in London on September 24, 1966 but, still waiting for his work visa to be approved, his playing time is limited to a couple of minutes onstage. As Chas, Linda and Jimi make the rounds at all of the local clubs, Jimi is noticed by Kathy Etchingham (played by Marvel’s AGENT CARTER, Hayley Atwell, who, it should be noted, doesn’t look anything like Chas Chandler); likewise, Kathy is noticed by Linda, who becomes violently jealous when she catches the pair in bed together later that night (or, six weeks later… jagged time lapses, remember?). Linda simply picks up the guitar she had given Jimi and walks out the door as Jimi implores, “No, Linda, no. Not the guitar.” Kathy is elevated past groupie status to girlfriend, as she and Jimi are virtually inseparable; Linda realizes that her jealousy was misplaced (she and Jimi, though very good friends, were never anything more) and returns the guitar (actually, a pawn ticket for the guitar) and all seems right in the world of Jimi Hendrix.
As Hendrix and Chandler marched inextricably toward a return to the States and the legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, there were, of course, several memorable events – all well documented – in those final months in London. Jimi needed a band; Jimi wanted a power trio like his idol, Eric Clapton, had with Cream. The auditions to find the perfect bass player and drummer, complimentary and exemplary players who could do what Jimi’s music and style demanded of them, were on. Noel Redding was tapped for the bassist position as much for his hair (“I like your hair, man. It’s wild, like Bob Dylan’s.”) and his vast musical knowledge as for his playing. In fact, Redding, a guitarist by trade, knew nothing about playing bass. When he asks how much the gig payed, Jimi tells him that everybody was broke, but that was cool: “Might as well hang out with us and be broke… and cool. It’s better than being just broke.” Feeling himself well on the way to being a rock star, Jimi calls his father, in Seattle to tell him the good news; his father is not impressed and, once more sensing that feeling of abandonment from his father, Jimi becomes moody and combative with those around him, who are only looking out for his best interests. Fulfilling a promise, Chandler takes Hendrix to see Cream at the Regent Street Polytechnic on October 1, 1966. Chas tells him that Clapton will meet him before the show; Jimi has him ask if he can sit in. This is one of the most famous first meetings in rock history; Hendrix plugs into Jack Bruce’s bass amp and asks the group if they know “Killing Floor,” starting the song cold, leaving Clapton, Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker to catch up. Bruce and Baker find the groove, but Clapton walks off stage without playing a note. Backstage, Eric asks Chandler, “Is he really that good?” Still searching for the third member of what was now to be known as the “Jimi Hendrix Experience,” Hendrix, Redding and Chanadler are debating the merits of the two finalists for the position. John “Mitch” Mitchell wins a hard fought battle over Aynsley Dunbar via a coin flip. Suddenly, we’re back to the beginning, with the band getting ready to take the stage at the Saville on June 4, 1967. With George Harrison and Paul McCartney in attendance, the Jimi Hendrix Experience would open the show with the just-released Beatles track, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” a gutsy move, but one that works. As he plugs in, Jimi turns to the crowd and, pointing to his ears, says, “Watch out for your ears.” The only thing that didn’t work for me in this scene was the guitar Hendrix was playing. I’ve seen film and photographs of the show and he was playing that white Gibson, not the painted flying V shown in the movie. A little artistic license, I suppose, wanting to show off another one of the man’s iconic guitars.
I usually don’t go into such detail when reviewing a film but, as I said, much of this is canon as far as Jimi Hendrix is concerned. But… what about the movie itself? Andre Benjamin catches the essence of the young guitarist perfectly (except, as I mentioned, the hands), capturing especially well the phrasing and nuanced vocal patterns of the soft spoken Hendrix; most of the well-known people shown (mostly in cameos) look astonishingly like the real deals, which is an instant plus. The cast is superb, from top to bottom, including Ruth Negga (the girl in the flowered dress, Raina, in Marvel’s AGENTS OF SHIELD), who has a pivotal role as Ida, a woman wanting Jimi to use his fame as a catalyst for a racial uprising (Hendrix’ response is beautifully poetic and one that should be used universally); of course, like Kathy, she, too, is a groupie looking to bed another rock star. The script doesn’t pull any punches with the portrayals of Jimi and all of the others (Clapton, in particular) and, really, that’s all you can ask of a docudrama like JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE. The film is rated R, primarily for language and the limited portrayal of drug use but, aside from that, this is a film that every music lover (well… except for those close-minded few that I discussed at the front of this thing) should see and will enjoy. Even without those classic Hendrix tunes.