Music biopics have a tendency to rear toward hagiography, as the stars they depict often end up falling into the stereotype of tortured genius or underdog who bucked the odds to become a superstar. These films are almost surely Oscar-bait and rarely provide new insight into the artist’s life. JIMI: All Is by My Side, although not a perfect film by any means, avoids these pitfalls by taking a smaller, more intimate look at a certain era in the life of Jimi Hendrix.
JIMI takes place mostly in London from 1966 to 1967 ending just prior to the release of Hendrix’s debut album. The film takes us from his early days performing in New York City clubs to his discovery by The Animals’ manager Chas Chandler to his time in London where his legend begins to grow.
The film is finally seeing a wide release after making appearances at different festivals for the past year. Written and directed by John Ridley, Oscar-winning screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave, the film mired in development hell for years and eventually went into production despite never securing the rights to Hendrix’s music. While this does seem like too big of an obstacle to overcome, JIMI avoids completely falling apart by never moving past Hendrix’s early years. He performs covers of many of the top bands at the time, most notably giving a rousing performance of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with Paul McCartney and George Harrison in attendance.
Through playing songs that are not his own, the film drives home its biggest theme: Hendrix’s struggle for a musical identity. Girlfriends, mentors, and managers hope to mold the path of the guitarist, all trying to tell him which music is best. Ridley delivers this theme of searching for identity explicitly and obviously with characters coming out and saying it directly over the course of the film. While it can feel heavy handed, it is a more refreshing approach to the music biopic than the familiar formula.
Andre Benjamin, better known as Andre 3000 of OutKast, portrays Hendrix, despite being roughly 15 years older than Hendrix is in the film. It is by far his best performance ever. He is not transcendent. He does not dominate the screen. Benjamin’s performance works, however, as he channels his own life with Hendrix, quiet during the day, but vibrant once on the stage. He nails Hendrix’s unique cadence and effectively conveys the personality of an extremely talented man on the cusp of something extraordinary. Benjamin does not have the talent to deliver an all-time explemary performance, but he’s convincing. He keeps the film grounded and his subdued performance fits with JIMI’s smaller nature.
JIMI certainly has its flaws. The themes are delivered too forwardly. Ridley suffocates the audience with dozens of shots of Hendrix’s fingers, not only when playing the guitar but also when doing something as mundane as drinking tea or smoking cigarettes, making it clear that these fingers are capable of extraordinary things. The editing is often jarring and unnecessarily disorienting and the camera inches up and down when fixated on Hendrix, slightly shifting the angle of the shot, which undermines rather than enhances the film.
JIMI works by taking detailed look at a small portion of Hendrix’s life, instead of making a grand statement about his entire career. The film is more Inside Llewyn Davis than Ray or Walk the Line, focusing on the beginning rather than the years of superstardom. The audience doesn’t see Hendrix performing his classics like “Manic Depression” or recording Electric Ladyland. We already know those stories. JIMI allows us to see how the legend began.