Canadian Music Week Film Fest Review: Jimi: All Is By My Side

Published on May 10th, 2014 in: Canadian Content, Film Festivals, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews |

By Less Lee Moore


When Jimi Hendrix’s estate refused permission for writer/director John Ridley to use any of Hendrix’s songs in his movie, it seemed like the film was doomed. Yet, while watching Jimi: All Is By My Side, the lack of original Hendrix music seems nearly irrelevant. Like Todd Haynes did with Velvet Goldmine, his loosely-based-on-David Bowie love letter to glam rock, Ridley manages to make it work. Without the specter of “the hits” looming over the film, All Is By My Side plays like a stadium-filling band performing deep cuts in a tiny club. It’s more snapshots and impressions than a by-the-numbers biography.

The first shot is a black screen with the text “Based on a true story.” Fair enough. This led to a few problems, notably Hendrix’s former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham claiming the production was “defamatory.” Of course, with no response from Linda Keith, who’s also portrayed in the film as something of a love interest, it becomes a case of “she said/she said.” Facts have rarely gotten in the way of a good story, however, especially when an iconic musician is involved.

At first, this does not negatively affect the film. There are date and location markers pointing out milestones in Hendrix’s early career: The Cheetah Club in New York, 1966; London in September 1966; June 4, 1967 at the Saville Theatre in London. As Hendrix, Benjamin André is damned impressive, adopting the mannerisms of the guitarist with almost startling believability. The dialogue is mostly low-key, focusing on little details instead of clichés. The acting is outstanding. Everyone feels like a real person and not a caricature, and with so many bona fide legends in rotation (Andrew Loog Oldham, Keith Richards, Chas Chandler, Eric Clapton, Noel Redding, Brian Epstein, two of The Beatles), this is no easy task.

Yet, when the film literally freezes on one of these people’s faces and superimposes text identifying them, it becomes awkward and unintentionally comical. Die-hard fans and contemporaries would know who these folks are without being told; for everyone else, it shouldn’t negatively impact the story to remain in the dark. The only other way to identify them would be through dialogue, which veers dangerously close to the clichés the movie seems determined to avoid. It’s a jarring tactic in an otherwise well-crafted film. There are also a few montages of 1960s imagery that seem more corny than helpful.

Ridley and editors Hank Corwin and Chris Gill utilize what I can only describe as a Soderberghian technique in the film: contrasting non-diegetic sound against images within a scene that seem to have taken place slightly before or after the dialogue we hear. There are also a few instances of simultaneous conversations presented at the same volume, which feels remarkably fresh and lifelike.

Such intriguing choices make the film seem more personal and believable. This makes other aspects seem suspect. Ridley, if you believe Etchingham’s claims, creates scenes and entire plot lines out of thin air, which would be expected in a movie of this nature, except for the portrait they paint of Hendrix himself. Did he really beat Etchingham’s in the head with a telephone? She says he didn’t and it begs the question of why that scene was included at all. Then there’s the way Linda Keith is depicted as integral to the development of Hendrix’s look, sound, and career. It’s not that Imogene Poots isn’t convincing as Keith (she is); it’s more about how accurate that part of the film is to what actually happened. In a film that is less about the music and more about the man, this poses a problem.

On the whole, Jimi: All Is By My Side is a beautifully realized sketch of an icon with wonderful period detail and top-notch performances. It’s remarkable how well Benjamin André has managed to sublimate his own larger-than-life persona into that of someone else without coming across like a celebrity impersonator. Hendrix fans, however, may be less pleased with some of the liberties the film takes with the guitar hero’s life.

Jimi: All Is By My Side screened at Canadian Music Week Film Festival on May 8. It will be released in the UK on August 8.

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